At the halfway mark of this NHL season, we know two things for sure: The Red Wings can go ahead and print playoff tickets for the 24th straight season; and their fans should brace themselves for something more than another abbreviated post-season run.
The former is a virtual lock if these Wings play even remotely close to their level of consistent excellence they showed in accumulating 53 points through 41 games. And the latter is based on more than wishful thinking.
Maybe General Manager Ken Holland is right (he usually is) when he tells anyone who will listen that we shouldn’t be at all surprised by what this team is doing. After all, with essentially the same roster as last season — only a lot healthier one — this team is on pace to improve its point production by 13 points over the 93 it earned in 2013-14. That, by the way, was just three points behind a New York Rangers team that advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring.
To be sure, the stars aligned nicely for the Wings in the first half, when they played 23 of their 41 games at home. They also stayed relatively free of the kind of debilitating injuries to key players that crippled them at times last season.
To date this season, they’ve been winning with all the characteristics good teams have in common. No playoff team can be taken seriously without great goaltending, and the Wings are getting that from workhorse Jimmy Howard, who has rebounded nicely from a down season a year ago, and Petr Mrazek, who has proven more than capable as a back-up getting a start every five games or so.
Also, special teams have been outstanding. Penalty killing, with defensive specialists Drew Miller and Luke Glendening doing the heavy lifting, a responsibility once held by Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, who are free to concentrate more on a power play that has proven streaky and often dominant.
Many of those youngsters thrown into the fray last season because of the injury epidemic, developed so efficiently in Grand Rapids, have stepped into permanent roles this season and are proving they belong. Noteworthy among them: Gustav Nyquist has proven he can score consistently at the NHL level like he has at every level throughout his career; and defenseman Brendan Smith has corralled his riverboat-gambler tendencies to anchor a third defensive pair that, over the long run, has taken some pressure off top two pairs.
Also contributing is the emergence of three key veterans: forward Justin Abdelkader is redefining his role with a career-high 11 goals already while proving he can play at a high level in a variety of roles, including on a top line with Datsyuk and Zetterberg; center Darren Helm appears to be maturing and learning to channel his extraordinary speed while staying off the injured list; and defenseman Kyle Quincey is finally playing like the guy the Wings spent a first-round pick on in a 2012 trade with Tampa Bay (after they used a second-round pick to acquire him in the 2003 NHL entry draft, only to lose him on waivers five years later).
The Wings have also shown an important knack for closing down games — an indication of strong defense and superior goaltending — going 13-0-2 in games in which they led after two periods.
All this said, this remains an imperfect team that will require some important adjustments to make a serious playoff run.
While scoring has spread out and there is less pressure on a few people to carry that load, goals have been hard to come by in stretches. The Wings need to find at least a bit more offense, which is why there’s such a keen interest in the call-up of forward Teemu Pulkkinen, who was scoring on a nightly basis with Grand Rapids. He’ll have every opportunity to prove himself at this level with a prolonged audition.
This team also needs to find a way to get a little stronger in combating fierce forechecking teams like Florida and the New York Islanders, two of the big surprises in the Eastern Conference this season, which found ways to neutralize Detroit’s speed and beat them handily this season.
And yes, coach Mike Babcock still wants a right-shot defenseman. He will get one, eventually. But the success his team has had to date only improves Holland’s chances of making a better deal when it becomes available. The Wings don’t have to panic. The longer this goes, the stronger Holland’s position becomes — and the more chips he has in play while other teams slip away from playoff contention and start to think about shedding salaries.
That luxury of time — and plenty of wiggle room in the salary cap — put the Wings in a strong position moving forward.
In other words, all signs point to a fun spring in Hockeytown this year.
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