The Detroit Red Wings entered tonight's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in an unfamiliar position: needing to beat the Blue Jackets to ensure they maintained first place in the Central Division. The Red Wings came out of the gate with a much stronger effort, getting goals from Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula en route to a 2-1 victory. The win moves the Wings 2 points ahead of the BJs with a game-in-hand as Columbus is back in the familiar position of looking up at the Wings.
The first period was a much better start for the Wings than in previous games, but they were unable to get a puck past Steve Mason, who was very good in the Jackets' net. The Wings were able to kill off three penalties in the first period, and ultimately ended the night five-for-five on the penalty kill. In the second, Todd Bertuzzi laid a pass across to Franzen, who buried it, giving the Wings a very important lead. Filppula added an insurance goal midway through the third on the power play when he took a pass from Brad Stuart and got it past Mason. However, Antoine Vermette pounced on a rebound about a minute later on a defensive breakdown by the Wings, setting the stage for a very tense final 2 minutes. However, the Wings were able to escape Nationwide Arena with a couple of crucial divisional points.
The Wings almost blew it, but their headstart in the scoring department left the Jackets on their knees begging for mercy. Come on down after the jump where I'll shoot out some bullet points.
Personal moment: I'm still freezing from standing in line outside for a Black Friday deal. It's been almost 24 hours since I left my house, and I'm still a little chilled to the bone. The things we do for love, I guess.
Jimmy Howard responded to his latest stretch of adversity with a brilliant performance tonight, and he is without question your Player of the Game for the Wings. He made 34 saves on 35 shots, including an absolutely gorgeous toe-save on Jakub Voracek that I was convinced was going in midway through the second period. He also stood tall in the penalty shot by Jared Boll, although that wasn't the greatest of attempts. Much has been made in the last week or so about Jimmy's struggles as he had allowed 4 goals in 3 straight games heading into tonight's contest. As the game progressed, I felt more and more sure that if the BJs were going to tie it up, it was going to be because they made a really nice play, not because Jimmy was going to let in a soft goal. He was especially great on the penalty kill, and a large part of that 100% success rate was due to him.
- In the same vein, the defense was also pretty good tonight. I thought the Wings as a team really simplified their game, and Brad Stuart (who I think is one of the most underrated players on the team so far this year) said prior to puck drop that the Wings were relying too much on offense and getting away from their defensive responsibilities. Most of the Jackets' best opportunities came while they were on the PP and you would expect them to have sustained offensive pressure; for the most part, the Wings were able to keep the BJs on the outside. They did an especially effective job on Rick Nash, limiting him to 4 shots while not having last change. That's a testament to the overall solid play of the D tonight. Ruslan Salei was probably the weakest link for the Wings on the night, but he's been good for most of the year, so it's not a big deal.
- I'm really digging the positives coming out of this game. The first line really had some jump in the first period and buzzed around the net all night, even though they did not end up on the scoresheet. The third line was pretty good, but didn't create a ton of offense. The fourth line did their thing as they always do. But the second line of Filppula and Franzen really looked sharp out there, especially once Bertuzzi was inserted on the other wing with the injury to Modano in the second period. Filppula really had a strong game, probably his best in a couple of weeks. He was making things happen in the offensive zone, skating strong in the neutral and defensive zones, and scored the game winner on the power play on a shot that I'm guessing he slightly fanned on. I thought Flip was the best forward on the ice for the Wings, and it was really nice to see him rise up in such an important game. It was also great seeing Franzen score a goal that required more than just him lazily throwing the puck toward the net and hoping for a bounce.
- Hey, Columbus: Edmonton, Florida and Pittsburgh want their jerseys back. At one point I was convinced that the refs were calling all those penalties against the Wings because they felt sorry for the Jackets having to play with those sweaters. Good gravy, it sure seems like third jerseys are "misses" more than "hits" these days, eh?
- A quick question for the referees: what the hell was that? Look, I'm not upset that they called 5 straight penalties on the Wings in the first 2 periods (since the Wings won anyway); I'm not that happy they called 3 straight on the Jackets in the third (technically the end of the second and third, but don't be so picky). What I am upset about is the absolute lack of consistency in the calls. What was a penalty in the first on a Red Wing was not a penalty in the second on a Blue Jacket. There were Wings getting hooked and held all over the ice in the second without a call. If the refs are going to call a tight game like that, fine: just make sure it's called on both teams. But, the Wings won, so I'm not going to complain too much (even they they were absolutely awful tonight).
- Chief over at A2Y shared a link from the Columbus paper before the game. It seems that this game was the "most important game in the history of the Columbus franchise" since it was a chance for the BJs to be in first place after Thanksgiving for the first time ever. Like Chief, I scoffed at this a little. Important games are in late March trying to sew up home-ice advantage in the conference, and in May/June trying to win playoff series. Not in November to go up by 2 points in a division where all 5 teams currently would make the playoffs if the season ended today. Of course, the article also goes on to mention that every time the Jackets play one of these games, the Wings let the Jackets know where their place is in the division. Consider tonight another reminder that they are not quite there. However, not having watched Columbus play yet this year, I'll admit I was impressed by their team. If the Jackets are still hanging around the division lead in February, I'll take notice.
- Jiri, Jiri, Jiri. It was mentioned during the game thread that when Kris Draper comes back, he's going to join the Drew Miller/Patrick Eaves/Jiri Hudler rotation. Now, some of this will depend on Mike Modano's injury and his availability going forward. However, at this point, I'm ready to say I'm done with Hudler. I tried to really pay attention to him tonight, but when he doesn't have the puck, he's pretty much as useless as 1 pair of socks on a single-degree night while waiting in line for a laptop computer. He's not a good back-checker, he's not very fast, and he's not bringing any intangibles to the lineup that would warrant him getting a consistent spot while he's not scoring. I'm getting very close to proclaiming his being brought back a truly bad idea. I think that an extended stretch in the press box needs to happen; it's starting to feel like Ville Leino all over again.
We have reached the magical "20-game mark", and the Wings have taken 30 out of a possible 40 points to sit first in the Western Conference and third in the NHL despite playing less games than the 2 teams ahead of them. The Wings currently have the best "points percentage" record in the NHL, meaning they have taken more points-per-game than any other team in the league. They also have lost the fewest times. Think back to a year ago and where the Wings stood at this point, and it's safe to say we're all extremely happy with the team so far. There have been a few clunkers, but that's to be expected. Overall, the Wings are looking really sharp, but for me, the most impressive statistic is this: they are 4-0-0 against the Central, having beaten every other team once. Considering how tight this division is going to be over the course of the year, establishing even a speck of dominance early is important.
The Wings head back to the Joe for another date with the Jackets, and game time is Sunday afternoon at 5 pm EST. After that, the Wings are headed west for a quick trip through California. So get some sleep this weekend, because next week we're all looking at some late games, staring with the Sharks on Tuesday.