On Thursday, the Detroit Red Wings will begin a three-game, four-night romp through California on a bit of a Western Conference nostalgia tour.
In fact, this trio of opponents will likely provide the Red Wings with their most daunting challenge of the season—win three games on the road against three legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
All three teams are currently top 10 in the NHL in wins, points and goals-against, which does not bode well for a Red Wings team that is still challenged to score on a nightly basis.
On top of that, the Sharks, Kings and Ducks all own terrific home records, with Anaheim sporting the most impressive in the league at 17-0-2. The Kings have the best goals-against average in the NHL, allowing just 89 goals in 43 games played, and the Sharks shoot the puck more than any other team in the league, firing an average of 36 shots per game.
Based on these statistics, losing these games in close fashion seems a more realistic goal for the Red Wings than winning them.
Still, there is hope.
The Red Wings met the Sharks at Joe Louis Arena back in October and managed to hold them to just 27 shots and zero goals through regulation and overtime. The Red Wings lost in a shootout (thus, beginning the team’s season-long tradition of doing so—again and again), however, their ability to quiet one of the league’s loudest offensive teams was impressive nonetheless.
Anaheim avenged its Game 7 loss in last year’s quarterfinals against Detroit by pummeling the team at home, 4-1, in the first period en route to a 5-2 win. Still, as much as losing at home has become a reliable disappointment in Detroit, the Red Wings are 13-4-3 on the road this season, and the last time they visited the Honda Center, they were celebrating an unlikely first-round upset.
While the Red Wings have yet to meet the Kings this season, a head-to-head matchup between Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Quick may actually bring out the best in the former. Though both goalies were named to Team USA’s Olympic roster, Howard is third on the depth chart, with Quick the expected starter. With Howard still struggling to recover his form, this game might provide just the right kind of motivation to make a statement, as well as bragging rights in Sochi come February.
Added to all of this, the Red Wings should be getting healthier by the time the puck drops on Thursday against San Jose. Center Pavel Datsyuk and defenseman Danny DeKeyser sat out Saturday’s game against Dallas with minor injuries but are both possible returns on Thursday. Forward Johan Franzen, out since December 15 with a concussion, could return to the lineup in time to meet the Kings on Saturday.
Still, even a healthier lineup, when compared to that of their competition, is hardly reason to think the Red Wings will be on equal footing against their next three opponents.
Facing all three California teams in four nights is a prospect that no team in the NHL would relish and will undoubtedly provide the biggest challenge the Red Wings have faced so far this season.
If they lose all three games, it wouldn’t exactly be unexpected. However, if they win one, two—or if one could be allowed to dream big for a moment—three in a row, imagine what that could do for a Detroit team still struggling to get healthy and win with regularity.
The Red Wings are facing a test they seem destined to fail, but should they succeed, it will provide them with one of the brightest spots of their 2013-14 season.