For Detroit Red Wings, December Games Could Put Season on the Line

Matt Hutter@mahutter12Analyst IDecember 2, 2009

MONTREAL- NOVEMBER 21:  Jimmy Howard #35 of the Detroit Red Wings stretches out to stop the puck on the shootout attempt by Mike Cammalleri #13 of the Montreal Canadiens during the NHL game on November 21, 2009 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Red Wings defeated the Canadiens 3-2 in a shootout.  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

So, it's around this time every year that people start looking forward to the holidays, spending time with friends and family, and winding down the year that was.

Work slows down, holiday parties and Secret Santa gifts begin popping up, and diets and spending budgets start getting tossed out the window.

In short, we start slacking off.

Here's hoping the Detroit Red Wings don't start taking the same attitude towards work in December that most of us do.

Detroit's December games, which begin in earnest on Thursday against the Edmonton Oilers, may very well dictate the Wings' chances for doing well the rest of the season.

With key players like Nicklas Kronwall, Valtteri Filppula, and Jason Williams out until the end of the month (at the earliest), winning games in December will not be easy.

Added to the difficulty is the mixed bag of opponents Detroit will face in the final month of 2009.

Tilts against Edmonton, New Jersey, New York (Rangers), St. Louis, Anaheim, Nashville, Phoenix, Columbus (twice), Chicago (twice), Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Colorado aren't exactly easy to handicap.

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Since starting off as the two hottest teams in the Western Conference, Colorado and Phoenix have started to run hot and cold, but which teams will the Wings end up facing?

Nashville has been the hottest team in the NHL of late, but will they be cooled off again when they meet the Wings in a few weeks?

Most teams wet the bed when they see Chicago on the schedule, but Detroit's beaten them in the only meeting so far this season. Does this bode well for their chances against them in December?

Eastern Conference teams are always a bit of a mystery, so there's really no way to predict how those three games will go.

Facing this much ambiguity in the schedule, the key for the Red Wings' success (if they are indeed determined to have it) will be consistency.

Through 26 games so far this season, the Red Wings have largely been inconsistent in their effort and execution.

However, when Detroit plays as a five-man unit and executes on playing a patient, up-tempo game, they've shown that, regardless of who's in the lineup, they're as good as any team in the league.

Starting now, Detroit must recognize this pattern and look to apply it game in and game out.

Unlike years past, Detroit simply can't recover from an off night.

Their decrease in depth, made even more shallow by injuries, means that if they start off on the wrong foot, next to nothing is going to stop them from falling flat on their face.

The Red Wings have 14 games on the schedule for December. If they can win nine of them, they'd likely put themselves in good position in the ultra-competitive, yet still close, Central Division.

Speaking of divisional play, Detroit will face all of their divisional rivals at least once this month.

One can bet that, regardless of the opponent, Detroit will be facing a determined and tenacious team aiming to beat two points out of them.

The Red Wings must consistently match this ferocity if they have any chance of doing the same to the other team.

This focus will go a long way towards not only improving their position in the standings, but also ensuring that the return of Kronwall, Filppula, Williams, and eventually Franzen, is but more fuel to their fire rather than the spark they hope will ignite it.

Again, now's the time to lock into a mode of playing a consistent team game. But, that being said, December would also be a great time for some players to step up and contribute.

The first of these players is forward Ville Leino.

Leino was signed to a two-year deal in the offseason and was, at the time, considered to be a steal given his performance with limited action last season (9 pts, +5 in 13 games).

Leino's first NHL goal seemed to suggest that, like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg before him, he was yet another diamond plucked from the proverbial rough by GM Ken Holland.

However, to this point, Leino has been an absolute bust.

He's on pace for 16 points this season, has already been benched once, and looks, at times, utterly lost on the ice.

Additionally, Leino consistently elects not to shoot when given the option.

His 38 shots on net is dead last among Detroit players who've played in 25 games or more this season.

Leino's limited physical upside has also proved problematic, as he's been absolutely plastered several times by opponents.

Ville Leino was signed for one purpose: offense.

With Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula out of the lineup, Leino must immediately start to pick up his game if he has any hope of remaining a regular roster player upon their return.

There is another Red Wing that could really use a shot in the arm: Nicklas Lidstrom.

While it is difficult to criticize one of the all-time greatest players in NHL history, one does have to look at Lidstrom's projected season point total of 25 as nothing less than alarming.

Lidstrom has two assists and a minus-six rating over his past 10 games.

Granted, not many Wings were scoring with any consistency during this time, however, when your team captain and No. 1 defenseman is playing like this, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence amongst the rest of the team.

Some would point to Lidstrom's age as a contributing factor, and, while he's definitely lost a step, he still appears more than capable of keeping up with the speed of the game.

Lidstrom's problem, like the team he captains, is a lack of sustained, offensive consistency.

One has to believe that if he can start to play with the same skill, drive, and effectiveness that has defined his career, the rest of the team will follow suit.

So, with many of us glazing over at the thought of gift-giving, vacation time, and all the welcome distractions that accompany the holidays, the Detroit Red Wings need to apply a laser focus to the work ahead of them in December.

If they continue to limp along through December with inconsistent play and unfocused execution, they might very well have ample time to enjoy the company of friends and family come April.

For, like us, they too will be watching Game One of the 2009-10 playoffs from the comfort of their homes.