The Wings played yesterday, and that was great, but all we really care about is the playoffs
Let's be honest: did anyone really, truly care about the game yesterday? Like, really care?
Yes, it's nice that the Wings ended the season with a win (for the record, the Wings are 6-3-1 in their last 10 season-ending games, including a 3-0 shutout of Dallas last year), because it caps off a 9-4-2 run the Wings went on to earn their 23rd straight playoff berth. Going into the playoffs on a winning note, especially when you're about to take on the President's Trophy winners, helps a lot.
One fear I had looking at this game a few weeks ago was that the Blues would relish the opportunity to prevent the Wings from making the playoffs. Thankfully, the Blues are the Blues, and it turned out that they needed the points more than the Wings, and it was Detroit who prevented the Blues from winning the Central and setting them up for a first round matchup with the defending champion Blackhawks. Have fun with that, St. Louis!
Since this really was a nothing game for both teams, I'm not going to spend a ton of time on what happened. Some small things jumped out at me, however, and we'll share them before we get into previewing the playoffs:
- I know it was only one game, and I know that there's a long way for him to come, but consider me as officially excited for Ryan Sproul to become a Red Wing. He was involved in the offense, had some decent chances, and threw a nice legal hit on Derek Roy. He'll need more time in Grand Rapids to get seasoning, but I could see him in Detroit within 2 years.
- Petr Mrazek needs to be the back up next year. Jonas Gustavsson performed admirably this year, but Mrazek is the real deal and could provide the team with a reliable starter should Jimmy Howard get injured or be inconsistent.
- Gustav Nyquist didn't score in the last few games. Trade him now.
However, the regular season is finally over, and now we get to turn our attention to the playoffs and the Boston Bruins. Boston is big, fast, skilled, deep, and very good. The Wings needed a strong performance combined with a little bit of luck just to make the playoffs, and the Bruins are the favorites to win the Stanley Cup for a good reason. The Wings are going to be in tough against the top team in the East, and most people are going to pick the Bruins to win.
If the Wings are going to win, they're going to need to play nearly flawless hockey, and certain players are going to have to step up and lead Detroit to the upset. Who are they? GLAD YOU ASKED:
Jimmy Howard: One thing that has always been and will always be true is that a hot goalie can turn a series in one team's favor. Wing fans know this because we've seen countless goalies turn into brick walls as their lower-seeded team upset the heavily-favored Wings in the playoffs. Looking at the talent level of the two teams, the Bruins have a decided advantage when comparing the rosters, but if Howard can get hot and display the level of goaltending he did last year (especially in Games 2-4 against Chicago), the Wings could pull off the upset.
Howard only played twice against the Bruins this year, going 1-1 with a 3.00 GAA and .917 SV%. That includes a sparkling 33 save performance a few weeks ago when the Wings earned their 3rd regulation win against the Bruins this year (the only team to do so). And if Howard does get hurt? Gustavsson went 2-0 with a 1.50 GAA and .936 SV%.
Johan Franzen: I would say there's not a single player on the Wings who makes fans want to rip their eyes out to throw them at the TV in frustration one moment, and in the next make us want to run outside and make out with the first adult we lay eyes on because we're so happy as Franzen. The Mule didn't have a great year, but he wasn't terrible either. A concussion sidelined him in mid-December, and it took some time for him to get back in the lineup, and when he did, he had 11 points in 5 games, including a hat trick against the Senators. Then he went all Mule-like and had 1 goal in his final 18 games, with 6 assists in that same time frame.
Goals are going to be at a premium against Boston, and Franzen earned his reputation (and big contract) by being very good in the playoffs. He's the only true "power forward" the Wings have, and he's probably going to see a lot of Zdeno Chara over the next 2 weeks, so it remains to be seen whether he can get engaged physically, which seems to make him play better.
One thing that could result in a better performance for Franzen? Raising his playoff shooting percentage from under 3% over the last 2 playoffs up to the 8.5% he normally shoots in the regular season. Playoffs are about small sample sizes and getting hot, and he's shown he can do that in the past. The Wings will need one of their best goal scorers to do his job and score goals.
: If you haven't read wingedoctopus' review of Smith
or the fantastic follow up
by trombonerwill, you need to do so right away. They both discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Smith, a player who I think really grew this year in to a solid 2nd-pairing defenseman who showed flashes of the skill that caused the Wings to take him in the first round of the 2007 draft. The injury to Jonathan Ericsson resulted in Smith being moved up to the top pairing with Niklas Kronwall, and there was trepidation with that move because Smith didn't really strike fear in the hearts of Wing opponents (maybe in the hearts of Wing fans, but that was for other reasons).
And yet Smith has steadily improved over the course of the season, to the point that he's no longer a liability every time he's on the ice. The flip side is that he's still prone to making a bad decision, and against a team like Boston that could result in very bad things in a very short amount of time. If he's playing with Kronwall (and there's no reason to think he wouldn't at this point), that means he's probably going to be seeing a lot of Patrice Bergeron, one of the best centers in the NHL.
I won't get into Smith's fancy stats, because the articles linked above discuss them far more intelligently than I ever could, but here's something to consider: last year he played all 14 playoff games and had 5 points. This year he had 5 goals, but 4 of them have been since the trade deadline just over a month ago. If he can play steady defense and contribute offensively, the Wings have a better chance at beating the Bruins.
Darren Helm: If there was one player who might have made a difference last year against the Blackhawks, it was Helm. His speed should be well known throughout the league, but since coming back from his latest injury, he had 5 goals and 8 points in the last 13 games. Every expert and Bruins fan I've read or talked to have all said that if the Bruins have a weakness, it's teams who have a lot of speed. Helm has speed to spare and then some, and could be a key contributor if his line can provide offense and take some of the pressure off of Pavel Datsyuk's line and the Kid Line.
Ultimately it's going to take a huge team effort for the Wings to beat the Bruins. I know that the Wings had success against them in the regular season, but this is a Bruins team that has very few weaknesses in the lineup and has a lot of talent and experience. Nothing is impossible, but we're going to need to see certain players play at a higher level than they have this season and do so on a more consistent basis. If that happens, then there could be some pretty tight collars in the Boston area in about 2 weeks.