The Detroit Red Wings are making a push for the top seed in the Western Conference. They are currently chasing the Vancouver Canucks who hold that spot. In addition, they also must stay ahead of San Jose and the hard charging, late surging Chicago Blackhawks.
Here are the keys for the Wings to catch the Canucks and secure that top seed.
Perhaps the Wings' most obvious problem, but after years of remarkable health, they have been an often injured group the past two seasons. This season the team has gone through a rash of injuries that has seen Pavel Datsyuk, Dan Cleary, Brian Rafalski, Valtteri Filppula, Tomas Holmstrom, Brad Stuart, Chris Osgood and Kris Draper miss multiple games.
While this has allowed some young players to get more playing time and experience, it has hurt the consistency of the team. Now that most of the injured players have returned, the Wings are getting their “A” game back. Recently, the Wings have made a charge at the first place Vancouver Canucks. A month ago they were nine points behind, but as they continue getting healthier, they have been able to get as close as four points. Maintaining their health will be the biggest factor in whether or not they they can catch Vancouver.
The point of getting the top seed is to ensure home ice for the playoffs. That only works if a team plays well at home. The Wings have won 17 games at home and 22 on the road. Over their last six homes games, they are only 2-4. This really needs to turn around, not only to secure the top seed, but also to help them in the playoffs.
Players have mentioned a need to play a simpler game at home. They seem to make one too many passes and try a little too hard to make a perfect play in front of the home crowd.
Chris Osgood is on pace to return from injury very soon. While he has been away, Howard has had to carry more of the load, which has taken its toll. In addition, the team has had to rely on Joey McDonald as the backup. He has only posted a 3-4-1 record. This has put even more pressure on Howard, in that on his days he has off, the team is more likely to lose. This increases the pressure on Howard to play perfect when he is in net. With Osgood back, the pressure should be taken off Howard. Reports are that Osgood is moving better now that he has had some time to recover, and should be in great form when he returns.
Beyond playing on the ice, the advice and mentoring that Osgood provides Howard is invaluable and acts as a calming presence.
Jiri Hudler’s return to the team had a very rocky start. In a 17-game stretch, he only managed one point. Prior to the All-Star break, he had only managed 18 points over 44 games and was minus five in his plus/minus rating.
That has all changed since the break, as he has 14 points in 17 games and has a plus four rating over that time span. While his goal production is still very much down, he has increased his intensity and seems to be playing more involved. A recent line change has matched him with Pavel Datsyuk and Dan Cleary, which seems to have him playing harder towards the net, rather than waiting to snipe from the perimeter. He has found success as a regular for shootouts, as he has scored several goals.
The Wings need him to continue to regain his style and form as they need a consistent scoring punch from him.
Mike Modano suffered a near career ending injury when he was caught by a skate blade to the wrist. The incident required surgery to fix severed tendons and nerve damage. After several months of recovery and rehab, Madano recently returned to game action. Before the injury he had been centering a line with Todd Bertuzzi and Dan Cleary, which had been very successful. With him back, it solidifies another line and adds depth to a potent lineup.
He also is a valuable member of the power play unit, as seen by his two power play assists already in only five games since his return.
While not playing poorly, a few players have been stuck in slumps. They will need to break this funk in order to help the team attain the No. 1 seed.
Henrik Zetterberg: While he has 18 assists over the last 23 games, he has scored only twice in that span. He is fourth in the league with 259 shots, so it has not been an issue of not shooting. In fact, the old record of 102 games with at least one shot was recently snapped. He needs to go beyond just getting shots and turn more of those shots into goals. His goals per shot are the lowest of his career this season.
Johan Franzen: In his last game, he ended a 14-game goalless streak. The Wings need his inside play and regular goals to make a quick return.
Tomas Holmstrom: Holmstrom has been in a bit of a season-long slump. His goals and shots per game numbers are down compared to previous seasons. The Wings need a resurgence from every goalie's most hated nemesis.
Todd Bertuzzi: Bertuzzi is a streaky player. Lately, if he scores one goal, then he ends up scoring two. However, he doesn’t score often enough. He has six goals over the past 19 games, but they came in only three games. He also only has two assists over that same stretch. The Wings do not need him to get a point every night, but they do need a more consistent presence.
One strength of the Wings over the years has been not only their depth, but how the players lower on the bench rise up when the team needs them. The growth of Darren Helm is important to the team’s success.
He has amazing speed and hustle that coaches love. He has become a valuable asset on the penalty kill as his speed and tenacity keeps the opposing team on their heels and prevents them from fully attacking on the power play. He has two shorthanded goals in his last four games.
He doesn’t get as much ice time as many would like, but that keeps him even fresher and allows him to blow by players on the ice. He is on pace to set his career high in goals this season, and has improved on finishing this season. As he gets even better in that area, his ice time and numbers will both make dramatic jumps. The Wings need him to continue his progress in order for them to catch Vancouver.
Howard has had a good season; however, it's not up to the pace he set last season.
Goals Against Average
Despite the decline in these numbers, he still is among the league leaders in wins. One would think that injuries to the rest of the team has made the defense worse and could account the dip in his numbers, however, he is facing the same amount of shots per game as last year (29).
One issue that could be the reason for Howard’s numbers is his contract. Howard has been playing for a contract this year, as he was to be a free agent after the season. Last week, the Red Wings signed him to a two-year extension. Since then, Howard has admitted in interviews that his contract status was a distraction. Ideally, with a better backup in net and now his contract status cleared up, Howard will be able to regain last year’s play and lead the team to the top seed.
After a recent four-game stretch where Howard never gave up more than two goals, he started falling backwards. In his last five games, only once has he kept the opponent below four goals. The Wings have only managed to win one of those games. He doesn’t not need to produce shutouts every night, but this giving-up-four-goals-a-night streak needs to end, and fast. As discussed earlier, the return of Osgood should help Howard loosen up.