Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Team Nobody Wants Any Part Of

3/24/10: Red Wings 4, Blues 2; 8th place, Western Conference

I haven't spoken about the Wings in a long time. Not here, anyway. Not since That Fateful Night in June. I've followed them throughout the season, sure, watched them quite a bit on TV (not so much at the start...just couldn't bear seeing them, really). My interest in hockey took a groin shot on TFNiJ, and I started recovering from it a couple weeks before the Olympics in Vancouver, as the Red Wings continued to flounder and look nothing like the Wings we're used to seeing.

Once the Olympics hit, the hockey fan at heart that I am broke out of his proverbial shell, and that's that. I cheered like a rabid, stark-raving lunatic for the USA in Vancouver. I think my head nearly hit the ceiling when Parise scored the tying goal in the final seconds against Canada, I jumped so high. When Crosby won it in OT for the hosers, I cussed and screamed and was almost as devastated as I was after TFNiJ. After the anger faded away though, there was one thought prevailing in my mind: Hot damn I can't wait for the Red Wings to come back.

As it turns out, that was a double entendre. They obviously came back from the Olympic break, but they also came back in another way. They came back from the injury-plagued, offensively-crippled malaise that had dragged them down the standings for the first five months of the season. Now, the Wings are healthy and rolling, and each night, San Jose, Chicago, Vancouver and Phoenix nervously look at the standings. It's a game of musical chairs, so to speak, between the Sharks, Blackhawks, Canucks and Coyotes. When the music stops, one of those teams is probably going to have the misfortune of facing the Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs. Whether it's the 1-8 matchup, or the 2-7 or 3-6, somebody's going to get more than they bargained for. It's not often the two-time defending conference champions end up at the bottom of the playoff bracket, but that's what's going to happen. And the Red Wings match up well with everybody - 3-1 against Vancouver, 3-1 against San Jose, 2-3 against Chicago (with one of those losses being a shootout loss), 2-2 against Phoenix (with both losses being after regulation). Do you think the Sharks want any part of Detroit? They have the weight of the world resting squarely on their shoulders as they try to shake the moniker of postseason chokers; you think they're interested in facing a team that has been to three straight final fours? And the Coyotes, the playoff virgins? Please.

At times, this is a tough Detroit team to figure out. The defense is considerably better this year - 19th in goals allowed a year ago, 10th this year, 25th in penalty killing last year, 9th this year. The goals allowed thing is an interesting dynamic - a year ago the Wings had three legit scoring lines, and I'm sure that, among other things, contributed to a slacking on the defensive end. Those "other things" I mentioned being a considerable Stanley Cup hangover last year (especially from Chris Osgood), while this year Jimmy Howard has only gotten stronger as the season progressed. And predictably, the offense sagged this year, for two obvious reasons: the losses of Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson, and the epidemic of injuries that sidelined Zetterberg, Holmstrom, Franzen, Kronwall, Filppula, etc...

Interesting note about the offseason defections: the decision by the Red Wings to let Samuelsson walk was in every sense the right one. One, because they had the choice of trying to re-sign him or re-sign Hudler - they picked Hudler, which was the right call, except then Hudler bolted for Russia (which was the right move on his's not like he took less money to sign with a team that just beat the Red Wings in the playoffs). But as George Malik at MLive pointed out on March 14th, the Wings took the money they would've given Samuelsson (or Hudler), and turned it into Todd Bertuzzi, Drew Miller, and Patrick Eaves. Bertuzzi has been one of the few healthy bodies for Detroit this year, and is currently catching fire on the second line with Zetterberg and Filppula. Eaves and Miller have brought a youthful energy and scrapiness that every championship team has. When you look at the sum of all the parts, the Wings aren't as "sexy" as they were last year with their three monster lines (Datsyuk/Hossa/Holmstrom, Zetterberg/Franzen/Cleary and Filppula/Hudler/Samuelsson). But they absolutely resemble the Cup-winning team of two years ago, with the appropriate level of starpower and supporting cast. The only noticeable difference is, obviously, in net. And while I've become a huge Jimmy Howard fan as the season went on, I do believe that will probably be the Wings' undoing this year. When Hasek melted down in the first round against Nashville, the Wings had a championship-winning vet in Ozzie to turn to, and they caught lightning in a bottle. This time around, it is absolutely Howard's show, and I tend to doubt that a rookie goaltender playing in his first postseason will have the poise and calm that Osgood had two years ago. That's not to say he should be thrown under the bus should the Wings fall short; not at all. The experience Howard gains in the postseason this year (should Detroit make it) will be absolutely invaluable. Datsyuk and Zetterberg had to go through growing pains against Calgary in 2004 and Edmonton in 2006 before they blossomed into true postseason performers, nearly saving the season all by themselves in Game 6 in Anaheim in 2007, which set the stage for the past two seasons. Just as they learned from their mistakes and learned what it took to win the playoffs, Howard will to. But more often than not, such lessons must be learned through defeat. So considering everything the Wings have been through this season, I'd consider another trip to the conference finals a pretty damn good ending.

Oh, and one name that deserves special mention, because I've disliked him for so long but must finally recant: Andreas freaking Lilja. The lasting memory of Lilja to pretty much every Wings fan is the mind-numbing giveaway to Teemu Selanne in overtime in Game 5 of the 2007 West Finals, which put the Wings down 3-2 and cut their legs out from under them. That's pretty much a habit of Lilja, actually. At any given moment, he may give the puck away inexplicably. He has almost zero offensive talent (six goals in 290 regular season games), he's slow and lumbering, and is generally unimpressive as a hockey player. And yet the numbers don't lie - since Lilja made his season debut on March 1st, the Red Wings have killed 29 of 31 penalties they've incurred. That's 93.5%, after months of toiling away in the lower half of the league. 93.5% after a postseason last year that saw the Wings, minus the concussed Lilja, give up a power play goal in 18 straight games. His absence was brought up as a factor in the incompetence last spring, and I largely dismissed it. I am now a believer. Andreas Lilja has a place on this team - and it's parked right in front of his goalie, steering traffic clear and doing things like what he did last night, throwing himself in front of Andy McDonald and preventing a slam dunk power play goal for St. Louis with the net wide open. Last season in the playoffs, such a rebound would've been slammed home by Corey Perry or Evgeni Malkin. This year, Lilja brings the physical presence and rugged determination required to kill penalties. I will no longer underestimate him.

Do I have a real point to make here? I guess not. This isn't as poignant or as stabbing a post as my recent stuff as been - I'm just on a hockey buzz, and wanted to ramble on about the Wings for a bit. Well, I guess I do have a point: Despite TFNiJ, losing essentially a entire line of production in the offseason, having the roster gutted by injuries this year and playing a rookie goaltender, the Red Wings are still badass, Kenny Holland is still a wizard, Mike Babcock is still a drunken genius, and no matter how this season ends, the Wings' demise has been greatly exaggerated, and they will be back near the top next year regardless.

Oh, here, this is something good to close on.

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