After finally securing a playoff berth in their most chaotic regular season in over a decade, could the Wings actually consider dropping games for a more favorable playoff matchup?
For the first time all season, the Wings finally have a fully healthy roster, and they’ve been on a roll since coming back from the Olympics.
Having all their regulars back, including game-changers Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg at full strength, the team has gone on a tear. The Wings have won 13 of their last 18, moving from out of the playoffs to fighting for the five-seed.
Detroit has gone from a postseason afterthought to the team no one wants any part of come mid-April.
The last two games, however, have exposed holes in the defending Western Conference champs’ game.
In back-to-back losses to Nashville and Philadelphia, the Wings have faced teams with similar make-ups that have historically given Detroit fits. Both Nashville and Philly boast a roster full of fast, young forwards more than willing to forecheck, clog the middle, and force play along the boards.
Detroit wouldn’t have to worry about the Flyers until the Stanley Cup Finals, if at all. The Predators are a much closer threat. But why do they cause a team like the Wings so much trouble?
A highly skilled team like Detroit likes to play the puck possession game. Whether they couldn’t diagnose the Preds’ defensive scheme, or they just didn’t feel like dumping the puck in isn’t clear, but for most of the game Saturday, they refused to do so and suffered as a result.
Nashville took away the middle of the ice, lined up both defensemen and a forward along their blue line, and waited for Detroit to try and carry in. The forward would either fail to identify what the defense was doing, or simply try to skate through it, get caught in the defensive trap and turn the puck over.
When those attempts fell flat, Nashville was able to control the puck, kill some time off the clock and set up their forecheck, something that Detroit has had issues trying to break this season.
The Wings’ defensemen have had plenty of issues breaking out of their own end in the face of an aggressive forecheck. Even Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski have been pestered into turnovers. Errant outlet passes and sluggish decision making have led to more scoring chances than coach Mike Babcock would like to see. If this issue in particular isn’t resolved, don’t expect Detroit to make much noise come playoff time.
Nashville’s Shea Webber and Dan Hamhuis are exactly the kind of defenders that can nullify Detroit’s crafty forwards. Neither is overly big, but both are strong enough to knock the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg off the puck, and quick enough to stay with them when driving to the net and force them to the boards.
It’s then that Nashville’s forwards and defensemen really shine.
Detroit’s team is made up of mostly small, very shifty forwards who are deadly in open ice. When playing possession hockey, a roster full of those players is fantastic thing to have. It’s not such a good thing when you have to win battles along the boards all night. Call it hockey karma for all those years the Wings reaped the benefits of the "Grind Line."
The number of Wings you can depend on to win a battle in a corner or along the boards shift after shift can be counted on one hand, with room enough to show how many finals the Wings have been in over the past five years.
Should their defense break down or lose a battle, however, Nashville’s greatest asset is more than ready to step up.
A hot goalie is the ultimate equalizer in the playoffs. On many occasions, a goalie has more than made up for his team’s lack of offensive talent when playing the Wings in a seven game series. After shocking early playoff exits in ’03, ’04 and ’06, I’m sure names like Giguère, Kiprusoff, and Roloson are still causing Wings fans nightmares.
Nashville’s Pekka Rinne is that type of goaltender. He’s fully capable of stealing a game and getting into the heads of the opposing forwards. He’s 2-0-2 against the Wings this season, with a 1.75 goals against average and a .943 save percentage.
It’s highly unlikely the Wings will draw the Predators in the first round, but there are two other teams boasting many of the same threats that have a very good chance of drawing the Wings come April 12.
Vancouver is all but a lock at the three-seed in the Western Conference, which sticks Phoenix firmly into the four-seed. The Wings could potentially tie the Coyotes in points if they win out and Phoenix loses their remaining three games, but the ‘Yotes have more wins and would take the four-seed on that tie-breaker.
Both teams have world-class goaltending, stout defense, and a willingness to muck up play with their forwards.
It’s a bit late to expect the Wings to shore up their short-comings and walk over these types of teams. Detroit might be better served resting players like Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Lidstrom, dropping a couple of their last three games and move to seventh or eighth, thereby drawing San Jose or Chicago, teams they have all but owned in seasons past.
In a Western Conference that is the most wide open we’ve ever seen, and after such a tumultuous season for the Wings, a move like that might be the best strategy