Moving on from the All-Star weekend festivities, I wanted to cover something that's very near and dear to my heart: the Detroit Red Wings. Currently, our favorite team sits second in the Western Conference standings and first in the Central Division. With games in hand on both teams, Detroit is five points behind a Vancouver squad that just lost team ice time leader Alex Edler to back surgery and six points in front of a Nashville team that's been on an up-and-down roller coaster ride this season, but will enjoy 21 of their last 32 games at home during the stretch playoff run. The run toward the playoff to maintain or improve positioning is not going to be an easy one, but the Wings are the best damn team in the league and they're not playing for the empty banner that reads "Presidents Trophy". The Joe is running out of banner space, but there's always plenty of room for the one that reads "Stanley Cup Champions"
Plenty of people are down on the defense and goaltending this season, and they damn well should be. Jimmy Howard may be one win behind Jonas Hiller for most in the league among goaltenders, but his .906 save percentage is good for 29th-best among goalies with at least 15 games played. I don't know which is the cart and which is the horse in this deal, but that's done its part to the Wings' goals against average, which is currently at 2.88. This is the worst team defensive stat among all Western playoff teams and is only better than Tampa Bay's and Atlanta's among current playoff teams in the East. Fortunately, the WIngs' record has been bailed out thanks to an impressive 3.35 goals per game, 2nd in the league to only Philadelphia. Make no mistake, the Wings are not playing defense the way we all know they can. We've gone around and around in circles trying to figure out why. Are the kids not developing? Did losing Lilja in favor of Salei hurt us? Are the forwards just not committed to the kind of hard-skating backchecking that's required of the teams who give up so few goals? Does Niklas Kronwall suddenly suck at hockey?
The answer to all of those questions is an emphatic "NO".
Remember earlier this season when Ken Holland said something along the lines of "the important thing is to make it to the playoffs; we're not terribly concerned with positioning at that point because once you get in, it's anybody's game"? I love how Holland was being so diplomatic with the way he said it, but as a Detroit fan, we all know that he meant "once we're in the playoffs, it's our damn game." If you've wondered why we've spent so many games watching Johan Franzen skate at what looks like an 80% effort level and why Niklas Kronwall isn't snapping people's heads off at center ice every other game or why even Justin Abdelkader has looked a bit more like a Nerf ball than a wrecking ball lately, it's because this team wants stuff left in the tank for the playoffs this season. Last year, during the injury-plagued nightmare that was late 2009-early 2010, the Wings had to fire all of their bullets just making it to the playoffs where they lost in the second round.
Fortunately, despite the injuries this year, which have slowed their pace, the Wings remain in very good playoff positioning. How's this possible? I'll let Mike Babcock explain:
"Because we’re better this year," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "Last year, we didn’t have near the depth that we do now. (Young) guys are a year older, so we’re a better team. We can lose more players and have a better team if that makes sense. We just weren’t good enough last year. I thought we played real good defensively last year and tried to hang in there when we weren’t talented enough. We couldn’t score."
This year, they know they can score and win enough games to make it to the postseason. They've tried this formula before where they let the guys take it a bit easier during the regular season and, despite what you may think, it was a good idea. Now I know I'm breaking some sort of code by ending the moratorium on discussing the 2008-09 Red Wings season as a success, because that Game 7 still infuriates me to this day; but, if you look at it with all proper context, you'll see that it's a very good formula for getting there. The Wings were just unfortunate enough to have to go seven against what was a very good Ducks team in the Western Conference Semifinals and then were unfortunate enough to be at the whim of NBC's late night television programming decision-making process. Then, they were unfortunate enough to have a few freak injuries happen. Then they were unfortunate to meet a relatively well-rested, healthy, and angry Penguins team. Even then, they were still within sniffing distance of two straight cups.
Yeah, that still hurts.
But, now nearly two years removed from that, the lesson remains strong: if you have the talent, saving it for the playoffs is a winning formula - you just can't control what happens once you get there.
If your mind is already screaming about how the Blackhawks ran hot all season long before ripping through the playoffs last year, thus disproving me, I'd like to remind you that this strategy was unique to the Blackhawks' situation and it royally bent them over come the offseason. Not only are the Wings built differently, but they're also built to compete at the highest levels EVERY YEAR, not just for one flash-in-the-pan before disappearing back into the middle of the pack. I'd gladly throw my fruit punch into the face of anybody who says the Wings are too old to compete, but even I have to begrudgingly admit that, as a team, the Wings are too old to play at that level for 82 games and through the playoffs.
So if I'm right (and I am), what does that mean for we, the fans? Should we sit back and accept that we're not going to see very many full 60-minute efforts from the Wings, knowing that once the postseason starts, Johan Franzen is going to go insane, Niklas Kronwall will remember how to play good defense, and Justin Abdelkader will do his best impression of nuclear fission? Hell no. We the fans have every right to expect that they bring the utmost effort every single game. We're completely within our right to talk about making roster moves to shore up the problems that we see and to call out the players who don't show up. We need to keep wanting our players to strive for that because we need to see that they have this in them. Understanding the plan and accepting it don't have to be the same thing - that's the best part about being a fan.
So keep doing what you do. There's no way to be a bad fan by caring too much about your team and wanting them to win. Just know that my confidence in this team has not wavered one bit. We may have our disagreements along the way, but you and I can always agree on a couple of things. 1) that the logo on the Jersey justifies the swagger in the walk and 2) that we're lucky we're not Sharks fans because man are those guys terrible.