With a 4-1 win over the Phoenix Coyotes, the Red Wings finished their 41st game which is of course the mid-point of an 82 game season. It's been a season unlike any other in recent history for Detroit fans. The Wings have struggled mightily this year against a much improved Western Conference and the injuries have not helped at all. Add in some turnover in the roster and chemistry was hard to establish early in the season. But that was the beginning of the season and after a horrendous start, the Red Wings have found somewhat of a stride of late and only 6 points separate them from the third place in the Western Conference.
The departures of Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler, Mikael Samuelsson, and Tomas Kopecky last season weren't supposed to hurt all that much. "Weren't supposed to" are the key words there but injuries to key players have crippled this team and forced the call-ups of some AHL-ers and put some fourth liners at second line positions. It started with star forward Johan Franzen and went downhill from there as the Red Wings were without 8 players at one point. Considering the amount of injuries and to who they occurred, Detroit is still in good standing considering. Players like Darren Helm, Patrick Eaves, and Drew Miller have played better than anyone could have imagined in the absence of the star players and will add depth to Detroit when all the injured return to the line-up.
Much maligned, this offense has been good when all things are considered. Last year Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg feed Marian Hossa and Johan Franzen, serving as pass first shoot second guys for the Wings. When this season rolled around, Hossa had bolted for Chicago and Franzen was lost early in the year with the well-known knee injured. All of a sudden, Zetterberg and Datsyuk were called on to shoot first, pass later. For whatever reason, this formula wasn't quite working as well as all had hoped for and an injury to Valtteri Filppula caused even more panic on offense. Detroit had to change modes and become a defensive minded team that relied heavily on Datsyuk on Zetterberg to backcheck. When these guys got going on the defensive game, their passing started to become a factor and things started to change in the offensive zone.
The Euro twins were united with little success and eventually split back up (partly from an injury to Zetterberg). But here's why splitting them up has worked for the Wings: teams key in on Zetterberg and Datsyuk thinking that they are surely going to be the ones shooting and giving more space to guys like Tomas Holmstrom, Todd Bertuzzi, Dan Cleary, and the like. Keying on the two opens up the ice for even when they don't have the puck because of the respect that defenders are paying to them and leaving more space on the secondary scorers. Simply put, its Zetterberg and Datsyuk's world, everyone else is just thriving in it.
Speaking of thriving in it, the Red Wings have gotten some great production out of guys like Darren Helm, Patrick Eaves, and a waiver pick-up Drew Miller. Guys that were expected to be mainly fourth liners (or AHLers in Miller's case) have shown a great offensive spark. Eaves and Helm alongside Kris Draper have created one heck of a pressuring third line that has incredible speed and awareness. Eaves and Helm are lightning bolts in the offensive zone and have helped spark the scoring game.
Offensive MVP: Co-MVPs awards have to go to Tomas Holmstrom and Todd Bertuzzi. Not many people pegged them as carrying the load offensively this season but sometimes what you don't expect turns out to be the best thing you could ask for. Holmstrom and Bertuzzi have scored by playing their style of game and carried a very weakened offense. Holmstrom has 15 goals and 6 assists while Bertuzzi has chipped in 12 goals and 13 assists.
Back to the old way of things, defense has become the focus more so than offense. With a rookie goalie in net most of the nights and an offense that is bottom 10 in goals/game, the defense had to become the primary point of play. The Wings defense has rotated many guys in and out of the third pairing following injuries to Niklas Kronwall and then Jonathan Ericsson. However, these guys have stepped up admirably in the void and done what has been asked of them. As a whole, the defensive team is limiting the shots on goal (9th best in the league) and top ten in the goals allowed/game department. The team is blocking shots, getting in the passing lanes, pressuring the puck and clearing rebounds--which is what Jimmy Howard needs to win.
Despite his offensive woes, Nicklas Lidstrom has been great as usual in the defensive end and has been greatly helped by some of the forwards. Todd Bertuzzi took a while to get rolling offensively but he's played a great defensive game all year long by helping out in backchecking. Valtteri Filppula, Pavel Datsyuk, Darren Helm, and Henrik Zetterberg have all been great as usual in their defensive roles as well but the unexpected defense from Bertuzzi has been much welcomed. The defensive play of the forwards has made life easier on the young guys like Derek Meech, Brett Lebda and Jakub Kindl.
Defensive MVP: Has to be Brad Stuart. No, he doesn't have the best +/- or the most points on the team but he's played very solid defensive hockey in about 23:47 per night. Stuart leads all Detroit defenders in takeaways, blocked shots and is second on the team in hits. Stuart has clamped down and played a great defensive game all season long with very few mistakes. He's played a great physical game in the absence of Niklas Kronwall and has played exceptionally well on the penalty kill--something he's done for a team leading 149 minutes this year.
Revisiting the season preview again: "We could be witnessing the passing of the torch in the Motown net." Hard to argue that at this point in my opinion. Osgood has put forth a few solid nights in net but Howard is flexing his muscles in net and proving that he can be a NHL goalie. I'm still not sold on the complete passing of the torch until Howard gets playoff experience (assuming Detroit makes them this year...might be a big assumption) but Howard has played great to say the least in his first full season in Detroit. That's a hard adjustment going from the scorers of the AHL to those in the NHL and Howard has matured rapidly. Osgood will get his game together eventually and likely get a good number of starts down the stretch.
Penalty Kill: The penalty kill had started out incredibly bad. Very poor kill success rate and it almost got to the point that an opponent power play goal or two was expected each night. The PK has gotten considerably better and is now middle of the road in comparison to cellar dwelling like earlier in the year.
Power Play: The power play has been an enigma this year. It started out pretty good but then when the Wings forwards and defenders dropped like flies, guys like Derek Meech, Justin Abdelkader, and Drew Miller were on the second power play unit. Nothing against any of those guys and the type of game they play but that's exactly it, they're not exactly the guys you want on your second unit. The PP units will pick up with consistency and/or return of injured players.
Expectations for the rest of the season:
As injured players get back, this team will get considerably better. Notice how much better in the offensive and defensive zone the Wings have gotten just after the return of Filppula. When Franzen, Zetterberg, and Cleary return to the offense, the team will be back to the star-studded roster that Detroit is used to seeing. The defensive game will be better when Kronwall and Ericsson return and if Andreas Lilja ever returns (which is starting to become more of a "no" in everyone's book) the Wings will have a very formidable defense.
Inconsistency has been a big problem for this team, going games without scoring or scoring 9 in one and 7 and in another. The inconsistency for much of this team is rooted within the changes in the line-ups. Guys in and out each night because of small injuries, the flu, playing poorly, etc. built very little chemistry and guys that were supposed to be grinders had to be snipers--it ain't gonna work. I'm not going to pick us finishing top 3 like I did in the preview but I think the Red Wings will get a solid 6-4 seeding if the improvement in all aspects of the game continues and the team stays healthy.
We want to hear who you've got for offensive MVP, defensive MVP, and any other thoughts you might have.