How the Pre-Olympic Schedule Is Crucial to the Red Wings' Playoff Hopes

Jim BalintCorrespondent IJanuary 26, 2010

With 10 games left before the Olympic break, it’s time for the Detroit Red Wings to make a statement.


The Wings are currently tied for eighth place in points with Calgary. Nine of the Wings’ next 10 games are against playoff contenders. With a five-game road trip coming up where the Wings visit the likes of Pittsburgh, San Jose, and Los Angeles, the team’s resolve will be tested.


If recent reports are correct, Niklas Kronwall and Jason Williams will be returning this week. That leaves Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen as the only regulars still out of the lineup.


This signals the perfect time for the team to correct its erratic play and get back on solid ground in terms of playoff standing.


As Mickey Redmond has said countless times, if the Wings hope to make the playoffs, they need to be playing .600 hockey the rest of the way. In their past 10 games, they’re 4-4-2.


What makes that record even more painful is the fact that two of those losses came at the hands of L.A. and Dallas, two teams in the thick of the playoff hunt. With the Wings currently on the playoff precipice, giving away points becomes that much more magnified.


The task starts tonight at the Joe against the Coyotes, a team the Wings have beaten the last two times they met. Phoenix hasn’t fared any better over its last 10, going 4-5-1.


With Kronwall’s expected return tonight, he can help solve the Wings' issues at both ends of the rink.


The most pressing change needs to begin in their own end. In each of their last six losses, the Wings have given up at least three goals. With the addition of Kronwall, the Wings should be able to send out two lines’ worth of solid defense for the first time in three months.


Opposing teams won’t be able to target the Wings’ second- and third-line defense anymore while Detroit is on the road. Having four defensemen that could serve on most teams’ top pair was a strength that helped the Wings succeed in other teams’ buildings in seasons past.


For the long term, not having to play Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski 30 minutes a night will go a long way toward keeping them both fresh and ready to go come April.


Kronwall will also help the team’s offensive output. Before going down with the knee injury, Kronwall was leading the team’s defense in points. He’ll have some rust to shake off before he’s back to that kind of production. Until then, just having him in the lineup should give Lidstrom, Rafalski, and Jonathan Ericsson enough confidence to take more chances in the offensive zone.


While Williams won’t have nearly as big an effect on the Wings’ overall play, he will help in two specific areas.


He gives coach Mike Babcock another option on the penalty kill. Should any player be struggling through a game, or if the team in general is just not getting the job done on PK, Babcock can send in Williams to add some energy and a give the PK a different look.


Additionally, Williams can fill in on the power play as a right-handed point man. As it is, the only righty on defense is Rafalski. Giving Williams a shift every now and again lets Babcock save Lidstrom for situations where his defensive expertise will be needed. Williams might even be an upgrade from Brett Lebda or Derek Meech at the point position.


If the Wings wish to make the second half of the season a little easier on themselves, giving an all-out effort before the Olympics could have them sitting as high as fifth in the conference. Failure to do so could leave them as low as 13th and possibly in a hole too deep to dig out of in the second half.