5 Positive Signs for the Detroit Red Wings' 2013-14 Playoff Hopes

Matt Hutter@mahutter12Analyst IJanuary 14, 2014

5 Positive Signs for the Detroit Red Wings' 2013-14 Playoff Hopes

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    The Detroit Red Wings are 5-4-1 in their past 10 games played and currently have a tenuous grasp on the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

    On the face of it, this hardly warrants enthusiasm. However, when one looks deeper into the team’s performance of late, one can find some positive signs emerging for the Red Wings’ playoff hopes this season.

    And let’s face it—a deeper look is what’s required to find such signs.

    The Red Wings have largely underperformed relative to expectations for this season. Their never-ending injury woes have relegated whatever potential greatness this roster was capable of to that which exists on paper.

    Center Stephen Weiss has been a titanic disappointment. Defenseman Kyle Quincey likely has to buy his own beer in Detroit...along with a round for everyone else in the bar. And Jimmy Howard—well, you see where I’m going with this.

    Naysayers and down-in-the-mouthers be damned, there are reasons to look at this Red Wings team and see hope for a future beyond Game 82 of the season.

    All statistics are courtesy of NHL.com unless otherwise noted.

Jimmy Howard Is Looking Better...No, Seriously

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    For a while there, it looked as if Jimmy Howard might have been the first Detroit goalie in recent memory to not be second-guessed and scapegoated after every loss.

    Then came this season.

    Howard is in the midst of the worst season of his NHL career with an 8-10-8 record, 2.67 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage.

    Still, there is reason to hope Howard can regain his form moving forward.

    Howard is off to a substantially better start in 2014, going 2-1-1 in his four January starts and posting a 2.00 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. Additionally, Howard has delivered two 44-save performances against the Dallas Stars and Los Angeles Kings, respectively, the latter a true game-stealer.

    Four games may be a small sample size to go on, but if Howard continues the rest of 2014 as he’s started it, the playoffs will be a given.

The Red Wings Are Playing a Simpler Game

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    With the Red Wings depleted by injuries, playing the kind of slick, East-West, puck-possession game they’d like to hasn’t been an option for most of the season.

    However, that hasn’t stopped them from trying to play that way on many nights, resulting in turnovers, failed offensive breakouts and miscues.

    The snow-covered ice the Red Wings played on during the 2014 Winter Classic forced them to focus on moving the puck up the boards and limit their pass attempts through the middle. It essentially forced them to play a simpler, more conservative North-South style; a style they seem to have stuck with after they left the Big House.

    Of late, the Red Wings have exhibited a smarter, grittier style of play that seems to be working for them. When the injured players return, perhaps they can once again try their hand at East-West hockey.

    For now, the team seems to understand that earning points is better achieved with a North-South approach.

The Penalty Kill Remains Strong

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    Detroit’s power play, currently ranked 20th in the NHL at 16.7 percent effectiveness and 0-for-21 in the past five games, has been brutally victimized by the injuries to power-play regulars like Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen and Daniel Alfredsson, as Ansar Khan of MLive.com points out.

    However, their penalty kill has remained impressive, working at 85.1 percent effectiveness and ranked sixth overall in the NHL.

    Defensemen Niklas Kronwall and Danny DeKeyser, along with forwards Joakim Andersson and Drew Miller, have provided the Red Wings with the steadiest foursome when down a man.

    However, young center Luke Glendening is emerging as a solid penalty-killer in his own right.

    With special teams often the difference between victory and defeat, a strong penalty kill is one reason to think the Red Wings’ playoff hopes might be buoyed moving forward.

The Kids Are Doing Alright

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    As Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press recently noted, the Red Wings’ depleted roster has allowed some of the organization’s young talent to emerge into more prominent roles.

    While players like Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist can be counted among the “overripe” players making an impact in the absence of veteran stars, the aforementioned Glendening, Tomas Jurco and, more recently, Riley Sheahan have been allowed to contribute more regularly than they would had the team been healthy.

    As St. James suggests, a healthy roster of proven veterans would be preferred over one dotted with first-year players. However, the experience these players are gaining now is invaluable to their ability to contribute to the team moving forward.

    These young players are helping the team earn wins it desperately needs. What’s more, they’re proving that they can be counted on down the stretch to contribute when needed.

A Loss to the Best Proves They've Got What It Takes to Win Against the Rest

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    The Red Wings' trip to California was mildly successful when looking at the 1-2-0 record that resulted after facing the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks.

    While the first game was utterly forgettable and the second game a well-earned victory, it was the Red Wings’ last game against the NHL’s best team that might be the highlight of their trip.

    Even without forwards Daniel Alfredsson, Pavel Datsyuk, Darren Helm and Johan Franzen, the Red Wings still managed to nearly match Anaheim’s offensive push, firing 22 shots to Anaheim’s 23.

    While that single additional shot ended up being the difference-maker for Anaheim, the Red Wings played one of their better games of the season. If not for a couple of posts, the Red Wings may well have upset the Ducks yet again at the Honda Center.

    Had they lost 6-0, it would have been expected, even understandable, given Anaheim’s dominance and Detroit’s diminished roster. Still, the Red Wings managed to hang tough with the league’s best team. One can bet that that will be something they won’t forget as the season continues.

    Should the Red Wings continue to play as determined and as gritty as they did against Anaheim, they will surely have enough success against lesser foes to make the playoffs for a 23rd consecutive year.