Detroit Red Wings' Blueprint to Make the Playoffs Without Henrik Zetterberg

Steve Macfarlane@@MacfarlaneHKYFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2014

Maybe Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock should wear his lucky tie the rest of the season.

He was sporting the charmed McGill neckpiece again during the gold-medal game in Sochi as Team Canada claimed a second consecutive Winter Olympic hockey tournament title, and, according to McGill communications officer Earl Zukerman (via the Montreal Gazette's Stu Cowan), Babcock’s lifetime record is now 8-3 while wearing that tie behind the bench. That was bumped to 9-3 when he wore it in a 2-1 overtime win over the Canadiens in Montreal on Wednesday night.

Babcock has been pretty fortunate lately. His NHL squad hasn't been so lucky.

Plagued by back problems for months, Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg had back surgery after playing one game for Sweden during the Olympics. With one of their premier forwards out at least eight weeks—which essentially means he's lost for the entire regular season—the Red Wings have some big skates to fill.

Pavel Datsyuk has been playing on a knee injury that has lingered for the better part of a month. Stephen Weiss, the offseason acquisition who was supposed to firm up the center position depth, has been out since Dec. 10 with a sports hernia that required surgery.

With Wednesday's win, they gripped a little more tightly to the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference but don't have much of a cushion with three other teams just three points behind and two more clubs a handful of points back.

In the past eight full seasons, the cutoff point in the Eastern Conference has ranged from 88 to 93 points. If we go with the high mark, the Red Wings will need 27 points from their remaining 23 games to secure a berth and keep a 22-year playoff appearance streak going—a winning percentage of .587.

To date, they've played at around .559. That means that not only to do they have to earn better results than they have through the first three-quarters of the season, they have to do it without their leader. It's a fact not lost on assistant coach Bill Peters, who talked to's Ansar Khan about the bad news:

"It’s a substantial loss, let’s not kid ourselves. It’s your captain, it’s your leading scorer; he’s a point-a-game player. His leadership in the room as much as anything is going to be a loss."

So what exactly do the Wings need to do to make the playoffs without Zetterberg in the lineup?


Better goaltending

Jimmy Howard's numbers don't all look bad. A .914 save percentage is just a fraction off his career average of .917. But his goals-against average of 2.60 is the second highest of his career as a starter and is more of a reflection of his inconsistent play all season.

Injuries have played a role, with a swollen hand keeping him out of a couple of games early in the season and a reoccurring knee ailment sidelining him twice. He's also admitted there is fluid around his left knee. But his horrible stretches in November and December can't happen again if the Wings are going to make the playoff push a successful one.

Howard was named the third-string goalie for the U.S. at the Sochi Games for a reason. He just needs to play to his capabilities again. The positive spin is that he's gone 4-1-1 in six games since returning from injury.


Take a cue from Team Canada

OK, we'll stop glowing about Babcock soon. But first, we'll remind you about the way he got Team Canada's brightest offensive minds to play a defense-oriented puck-possession system to perfection to dissect the Olympic hockey tournament opponents without overly spectacular goal production.

There's no doubting the skill of Datsyuk, and winger Daniel Alfredsson had a nice tournament for Sweden at the Sochi Games. Losing an elite player like Zetterberg, though, means as much in the neutral zone and defensive end as it does around the opposition's net.

Down the stretch, it will be even more critical for every player—especially those who don't have as much experience—to buy into the coach's tactics and execute as cleanly as possible.


What's old is new again

They just got Johan Franzen back into the fold after a second bout of concussion symptoms kept him out of the Olympics and out of the 22 of the previous 23 Wings games. His contribution in his first game back? Assists on both goals, including the overtime winner by Gustav Nyquist.

Todd Bertuzzi has been a healthy scratch the last couple of weeks but scored a power-play goal in his first game back Wednesday. It was his first goal and second point since Dec. 10, and the team will need more nights like that from the 39-year-old over the next couple of months.

Datsyuk missed 14 games before the Olympic break. Despite playing for Russia at the Olympics, the break from NHL action will hopefully help him return close to 100 percent.

The Red Wings are also expecting center Stephen Weiss to return from sports hernia surgery. His debut as a Red Wing hasn't gone well so far, but his injury may have contributed to the two goals and four points he put together in his first 26 games after inking a five-year contract worth $4.9 million a season. The 30-year-old had a couple of 60-point seasons with the Florida Panthers and was signed to provide a legitimate second-line center. Once fully healthy, the Wings need him to finally do that.


Avoid misfires from the young guns

Nyquist has been a revelation this year when called upon. With all the injuries the Wings have suffered, the 24-year-old has had to step up. He's responded better than anticipated with 15 goals and 25 points in 34 games. Incredibly, 11 of those goals have come in the last 11 games.

Tomas Tatar has been almost as impressive with 13 goals and 24 points in 50 games as a 23-year-old, and Tomas Jurco, at 21, has seven points in 20 games, including four in the last 10 outings.

They're all very skilled. For the Wings to make the playoffs, they'll need to continue to chip in offensively without taking too many chances or making key mistakes. If they hit any sort of plateau, the burden on the top line could be too heavy and crucial points could be lost in the race.


Make The Joe a more hostile place to play

One of the most surprising statistics surrounding the Red Wings this season is how poorly they've played at home. Joe Louis Arena has been a haunted rink for most opponents over the last decade or so.

In 2011-12, the Red Wings went 31-7-3 at home. Since the 2005-06 season, they've compiled a 243-80-48 record there.

This year, however, they're at 11-11-8.

If the Wings can improve on just one statistic the rest of the way, this one is key.

Say it ain't so, Joe: Red Wings home record


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