The All-Star Game is now a distant memory, and Tuesday marks the second half of the Red Wings' march to their 12th Stanley Cup.
The first half was an interesting one, but the Wings have positioned themselves well to earn a top playoff seed in April. At the break, they sit in first place both in the Central Division and the Western Conference, but the competition for both is very fierce.
The Central Division has been an absolute force to date, dominating competition throughout the league. The top 4 teams in the Central all have at least 64 points, something only 3 other teams have accomplished so far. Should the Wings survive and win the division, they will have to battle with Vancouver and San Jose for the Western Conference title and home ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Wings certainly are very capable of earning both the division and conference crowns. How can they do it? What will we be looking for in the second half? Follow the jump for 5 of the most important questions facing the Wings.
1. Can Jimmy Howard maintain his first half play?
To me, there's absolutely no question that Jimmy Howard was the MVP of the first half for the Red Wings. Check out his stat line, with his NHL rank in brackets: 30 wins (1st), .924 SV% (9th), 2.03 GAA (5th), 5 SO (2nd), 2,478 minutes (8th). That last one is important because Jimmy has played in 42 of the Wings' first 50 games, a very heavy workload for the man expected to be fresh for the playoffs. Howard has been arguably the Wings' most consistent player this season, only being pulled twice and only allowing 4 goals in 6 games so far. The team defense has been better in front of him, which has certainly helped, but you can see in his play that he's much more comfortable in the crease while being aggressive when he needs to be. It's resulted in his putting up numbers that are very close to what he did in his rookie season, lending credence to the theory that last year was the fluke, not this one. For the Wings to continue to succeed in the second half, they need Jimmy to remain at the level he's playing at now.
2. What does Pavel Datsyuk have in store for us?
If Jimmy has been the team's MVP in the first half, Pavel may very well take the second half honour. To say that his start was slow (by his standards) is a bit of an understatement; in the first 17 games of the season, he only had 2 goals and 9 assists, terrible numbers for a player of his caliber. Why did I pick 17 games? Because game 17 was the game where Mike Babcock called out the team and asked whether they wanted to be a good team or not. It's also the day after Pavel himself described his play as "awful" and said he needed to be "more dangerous". Talk about being true to his word. In the following 32 games, he has scored 12 goals and added 30 assists. His 39 assists and 53 points are both good for 3rd in the NHL at the break. More importantly, his defensive skills haven't suffered as a result; he's 2nd in the NHL with 66 takeaways, and he's 2nd among all centers who have taken at least 800 faceoffs in FOW%. There's absolutely no question that up front, he's the leader of this team, and if he keeps up his pace from the last 32 games, he should be in the Hart Trophy conversation.
3. Can the Red Wings take advantage of their schedule?
The Red Wings are the NHL's best home team. Don't bother to look up stats or records or anything; the best home team is the one that has won 17 straight in their own building. They are 20-2-1 at the break, and to put things in perspective, here's how that stacks up against the rest of the NHL: the next closest team, the Blues, have lost 3 games in regulation at home; the Wings have lost 3 total; the Wings' 20 wins is 2nd to the Blues, who have played 5 more home games; the Wings have won 17 games at home during their current streak; only the Blues, Blackhawks and Flyers have won that many at home all season. The first half of the Wings' schedule was more road-heavy, and the Wings will start the second half in Western Canada. However, once that road trip is over, the Wings will play 18 of their final 28 games at home. We'll have more on this in a bit, but of the 4 teams in the West, the Wings have a schedule that is both very manageable in terms of opponents and have far more games at home, where they are a much better team than when they are on the road. Having gotten through the tough part of their schedule, the Wings should be able to pull away from the division by winning their home games.
4. What will Johan Franzen do?
When we think of the more consistent players on the Red Wings, the name "Johan Franzen" doesn't readily spring to mind. The Mule's struggles with being able to put the puck in the net on a consistent basis are well known. One need only look back to last year; after potting 5 goals against the Senators, he proceeded to go 14 games without a goal.
This year, Franzen has been better (by his standards), with his longest goal-scoring drought at 8 games. He currently has 19 goals, which would put him on pace for 31 on the season, 3 off of his career high. However, despite his documented struggles, he could also easily go on a tear where he's scoring at a goal-per-pace. Will Franzen go crazy and start scoring in bunches, or is he going to go as cold as a home game in Winnipeg?
5. What's going to happen at the trade deadline?
We've all heard the rumors; the Wings are in the running to land one or more of the following players: Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, a 1989 version of Steve Yzerman, and that superstar player that you made in NHL12. While many of those players are pipe dreams, the Wings have cap space to make a move if they want this year at the trade deadline. Unlike in years past, when the Wings would get an injured player back as their "acquisition", the Wings have the ability to go out and add players that they feel will help the team.
There's no question that the Wings could use a top-6 forward, but there are people who feel that the Wings just need to make a few tweaks and add a little depth. Names like Ales Hemsky, Tuomo Ruutu and Travis Moen are being thrown around, and for me, I'm not sure that I'll be surprised no matter what happens.