The end of the regular season is nearly upon us, and for the 21st straight season the Detroit Red Wings will be embarking on their quest to earn yet another Stanley Cup. However, for the first time in many years, there is a lot of trepidation and concern regarding the team's chances at adding banner #12 to the Joe's rafters in June.
When this season began, the Wings were coming off their second consecutive defeat at the hands of the San Jose Sharks, and a number mainstay players retired, including one of their emotional leaders, Kris Draper. This was the year that several players were expected to take a step forward in their development and take a more prominent place on the team while they incorporated some new faces into the lineup.
The results have been mixed, to say the least. The season of streaks began with 5 straight wins, then 6 straight losses, and it's continued throughout the season. The Wings have been as consistent as my soon-to-be-born-baby's diapers will be, and it's made for a very trying year for us fans.
The playoffs this year represent a very stressful time for Wing fans. No longer is the team the consensus favourite to represent the West in the Stanley Cup Finals, and there are some pundits who will no doubt predict that the Wings won't even get out of the first round. The weaknesses of this team are plentiful, but so are their strengths, and I think it's nearly impossible for anyone to accurately say that the Wings will or won't be successful in scoring Cup #12.
I can think of 3 reasons why the Wings will win the Cup and 3 reasons why they can't. Follow the jump for details.
Let's get the bad news out of the way first, then look at the positives.
Why the Red Wings can't win the Stanley Cup:
1. Their Special Teams. By now I think we've all come to grips with the fact the Wings put the "special" in "special teams". Their penalty killing has been abysmal throughout the entire season, and currently sits 21st in the NHL at 81.1%, a tenth of a percentage point ahead of the powerhouse Islanders. They are 16th in Times Shorthanded, so with the amount of PPG against and number of penalties taken, Detroit has been putting itself in tough situations all season. The worst regular season PK% of any Cup champion since the lockout was Carolina at 81.8% in 2005-06, but they had the 3rd best PK% of any post-lockout Cup champion at 85.4%.
The power play hasn't been much better. Detroit's once potent power play has gone soft this season, converting on 16.2% of their opportunities, good for 21st in the NHL. Even worse is the fact they have given up 10 SHG against, meaning they are only +37 overall while enjoying a man advantage. Looking back once again, the only team that was successful at winning with a garbage PP was Boston last year (16.2% in the regular season, 11.4% in the playoffs), but considering who their goalie was, they didn't require a ton of scoring.
2. Road Woes: We'll be looking at some numbers in the next couple of days, but as it stands now the Wings have the potential to be the worst road team in the West of all the playoff teams (San Jose is challenging them for that distinction). Considering that they may begin the postseason in another team's building, they are going to have to figure out how to win away from Joe Louis Arena, because you can not win a playoff series as the lower seed without winning a road game.
3. Lack of depth scoring: While the regular season numbers look great, the Wings ran into a problem last year against San Jose in that they could not get any scoring from their third and fourth lines. Of the 18 goals scored last year against the Sharks, only 5 (one of them an ENG) did not involve a point by either Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg. The Red Wings currently have 11 players with at least 10 goals, but in the playoffs it is likely the team will either play against a top defensive pairing (Keith-Seabrook or Suter-Weber) or a stingy pacific division team with a hot goalie (Quick, Lehtonen, Smith). Scoring will be a premium, and the Wings will need goals from unlikely sources to take the pressure off Dats and Z.
All doom and gloom, right? You're probably thinking "why even bother playing the first round? I've got tulips that need pruning and April is such a short month anyway." Well friend, all is not lost. The Wings do have a shot at that big silver trophy.
Why the Red Wings can win the Cup:
1. Jimmy Howard: The Wings' All-Star goalie was the team's first half MVP and was on his way to challenging for the NHL record for wins in a season before injuries took him out of the lineup. First a broken finger on his blocker hand kept him on the shelf, then a groin injury took him back out of the lineup. Jimmy seems to be fully healthy, and it's vitally important that he remain that way because he gives the team a chance to win every night.
As it stands right now, Howard's numbers are good enough to rank him 6th in wins (34), 12th in SV% (.920) and 7th in GAA (2.14). His .929 even strength SV% ranks him ahead of such goalies as Pekka Rinne, Tim Thomas, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kari Lehtonen. Howard's play this year is indicating that last year was the fluke and not his rookie season, where he posted very similar stats. His presence in the net is key to the Wings' success.
2. They're kind of good at home: For as bad as the Wings have been on the road this season, they are dynamite at home. With wins in their final 2 home games against the Devils and Blackhawks, the Wings can enter the playoffs as the NHL's best home team (and would likely receive home ice advantage in at least round 1). We all rode the 23-game home winning streak earlier this season like a roller coaster, but their home goal differential is an incredible +61. They don't just win at home: they could end up as one of the NHL's best home teams since the lockout. It's not unreasonable to think that the Wings could have 2 almost-guaranteed wins in every round based on well they play at home.
3. They are the NHL's best 5-on-5 team: In the playoffs, referees tend to show more discretion in allowing the players to just play and not call as many penalties. As one might expect, being able to score 5-on-5 becomes key since 80% of the game is played in that situation.
Currently, the Wings are just ahead of the Blues as the NHL's best team 5-on-5. Their goals for/goals against ratio is 1.45, and once again we look back to see that no team has won the Cup post-lockout with a negative ratio. The worst was Carolina at 1.02 in 2006, but the next lowest was Anaheim in 2007 with a 1.15. For reference, Detroit had a 1.41 GF/GA in 2008 while Boston sat at 1.40 last year.
So there you have it. The Wings are either royally screwed or we're going to be having a really big party on Woodward in June. Personally, I don't think any of this matters because once the playoffs start, you can throw everything that happened in the regular season out the window.