In 2008, the Detroit Red Wings won their fourth Stanley Cup in 10 seasons, and their latest championship run (the entire 2007-2008 season) was done in dominating fashion. During the last regular season, the Red Wings ranked first in team defense and third in offense.
Their special teams also ranked among the best, with the third best power play and eighth best penalty killing in the league. After seeing 2008, many experts predicted the Wings to repeat as Stanley Cup champions yet again in 2009 with the core of the championship squad returning for another run.
The Cup repeat chants only got louder when superstar forward Marian Hossa and stellar back up Ty Conklin joined the Red Wings in the offseason.
This season, however, the Wings have been plagued with defensive inconsistencies and breakdowns for the majority of the year. After being the best defensive team in 2008, the Wings currently sit 19th in that department. Much of the blame has fallen upon starting goalie Chris Osgood, who has spent most of the season ranked last in several important goaltending categories.
Uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns among the forwards and defensemen have also lead to costly goals being scored against the Red Wings. Yet, after all these issues, the Red Wings still sit in first place with 103 points through 71 games.
The main reason behind Detroit’s success this season has to do with an offensive squad that is second to none. The Wings have scored more goals in 70 games this season than they did in 82 games last season. The offense is on pace to be only the fourth team since 2000-01 to score over 300 goals; they also did it in 2005-06. Detroit’s power play has been its greatest strength by boasting a league leading 26.9 percent success rate.
The offensive power this Red Wings team can throw out on any given night is enough to cause migraines for opposing coaches who need to think of defensive combinations. Thanks to the offense, the Red Wings are on pace to have more points this season than they did when they won the President’s Trophy last season.
The current team from Hockeytown might have been dealing with a Stanley Cup hangover that has notoriously bothered many recent Cup-winning teams. Osgood admitted in the second half of the year that, in fact, the hangover has bothered him this season, and the same might be true for several other players.
After taking a team-ordered 10-day break, Osgood has since been 5-2-0 with two shutouts; he had none in his first 29 starts. Other than the two terrible games by the entire team against division rivals Nashville and Columbus, Osgood seems to be a completely different player than the one who would rarely allow less than three goals per game before the break.
Every team that is in the playoff hunt in the Western Conference has elite goaltending that can prove to be an issue for the defending champs. Elite goaltending has been the biggest burden for the Red Wings during their playoff losses in recent years.
The Anaheim Ducks are currently outside of the playoff picture, but do have a chance at sneaking in. The last two times the Red Wings faced the Ducks, Jean-Sebastien Giguere was able to pull his team out of the offensive shelling by Detroit and go on to the Stanley Cup finals.
This year’s likely Calder finalists and first round matchups, Chris Mason of Columbus and Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, are two goalies who can steal a game on any given night, as they sit 1-2 in shutouts and rank among the top in all goaltending categories.
What makes these two teams more dangerous than higher-seeded teams has to do with their experience in playing with the Wings and the amount of divisional games they’ve had over the past few seasons. This year, Nashville and Columbus have given Detroit some trouble in divisional matchups with the Wings holding a slight lead at 5-4-1.
Due to these three goalies and their success against the Wings, these three teams are the most dangerous matchups for the Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have a very dangerous weapon in Chris Mason and a Stanley Cup-winning coach in Ken Hitchcock, but the Jackets are too young and inexperienced to provide a threat more dangerous than the more experienced and ever resilient Predators.
The Blackhawks and Canucks have a good set of experience, offensive depth, and elite goaltending. The young Blackhawks team hasn’t made the postseason since 2002, however, and it doesn’t help their case when Detroit is 4-0 against Chicago this year. Vancouver is potentially a very dangerous second-round matchup for the Wings, as they are a great home team, are deep up front, and have Roberto Luongo in net.
The easiest first-round matchups for Detroit would likely be Minnesota, St. Louis, Dallas and Edmonton. All four have solid goaltending with Niklas Bakstrom being a standout in Minnesota, but all four are lacking the depth and offensive power to really threaten Detroit.
Overall, the potential matchups that can prove to be the most difficult for the Wings are the two fellow division leaders San Jose and Calgary. Due to the seeding, however, Detroit would not face either team until the conference finals. Both teams have a healthy supply of experienced and talented forwards who will be hard to stop as both teams don’t rely on only one dangerous line.
San Jose improved by adding three Cup-winning defensemen in Dan Boyle, Rob Blake, and Brad Lukowich, while Calgary improved by adding two 30-goal scorers in Olli Jokinen and Michael Cammalleri.
Of the two, San Jose is much better in goal, as Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff has seen his SV percentage decrease and his GAA increase every year for the last five seasons. San Jose’s Evgeni Nabokov has seen an improvement in his SV percentage and already matches his six shutouts from his Vezina finalist season the year before.
San Jose also sits in the top five for both the power play and penalty killing efficiencies, which makes them the hardest overall opponent for Detroit coming out of the West.
If, and this is a huge if, Detroit can avoid facing unstoppable goalies that have burned them in the past and manage to keep defensive breakdowns to at least their average, the chances of a repeat look quite realistic. No other team in the Western Conference can throw as many talented forwards at the opposition like the Red Wings, and in those games where Detroit clamped down defensively, they’ve been unbeatable.