The Detroit Red Wings return to action on Wednesday after a much needed break for the All-Star Game this past weekend. Much-needed break may be a bit of an understatement, actually. The Red Wings locker room looked more like a medical ward after the Wings wrapped up the unofficial midway point of the NHL season. Detroit's injured list looked like a mini All-Star team of its own:
- Mike Modano severed a tendon in his wrist Nov. 26 against Columbus. He hasn't played since and won't until at least March.
- Detroit stayed relatively healthy until a slew of injuries hit in late December. Pavel Datsyuk was the first victim, on Dec. 22, breaking his hand against Vancouver. Four days later, Dan Cleary took a shot of his foot that busted his ankle.
- If that wasn't enough, the defense then took a hit. Brad Stuart fell victim to a headshot by Calgary's Tom Kostopoulos, breaking his jaw and putting him out until at least the end of February. Kostopoulos earned a six-game suspension for himself as a result.
- Backup goaltender Chris Osgood had surgery to repair a sports hernia, putting him out until March as well. Detroit then lost Jimmy Howard for two games, forcing third stringer Joey MacDonald to take the reins. Thankfully Howard returned to action in less than a week.
- Last but not least, Tomas Holmstrom broke his hand in early January. He's nearing a return, but is not quite ready yet.
To put that in perspective, that's an entire line of top tier forwards (and then some: Modano-Datsyuk-Holmstrom-Cleary), a top four-defenseman (Stuart) and the NHL's tenth goalie to accumulate 400 career wins (Osgood). That's not even mentioning the other guys like Howard, Valtteri Filppula and Patrick Eaves, who all had minor injuries during this time, further depleting the Wings' depth.
Despite all of this, Detroit has remained one off the best teams in the NHL and still leads the Central Division by six points. Since Datsyuk went down the Wings have went 10-5-2 (including the Vancouver game he was injured in since they essentially played the whole game without him), a respectable record when you're missing two of your top scorers. However, there are still 33 games left in this season and now the Wings enter the most crucial part of the schedule. Here's what Detroit needs to do to remain a top contender in the West.
Jimmy Howard needs to step up his play
With no Osgood to pick up the slack, Howard needs to return to the All-Star form we saw from him earlier in the season. Howard's numbers are still pretty good: a 24-8-3 record, 2.81 GAA and a .906 save percentage. But it's not a coincidence that Howard's numbers started to decline once the injury wave hit the team.
Howard has given up three goals or more eight times since Datsyuk went down on Dec. 22, a span of 12 games. Five of those instances have come in January alone; prior to that fateful game against the Canucks, Howard had let in three or more 12 times in the previous two and a half months. Howard's GAA and save percentage numbers took a dive in January as a result -- he let in 3.49 goals per game and was only stopping 89.4 percent of his shots.
But not all the blame lies on Howard and his recent backup MacDonald, who have been the victim of some straight up bad defense. That can be partially attributed to the absence of Stuart, who was the Wings' best shutdown defenseman next to Nicklas Lidstrom before he was injured. Detroit has missed him badly on the back end, and it's beginning to show particularly in Niklas Kronwall, who has made some very questionable plays lately.
Speaking of defense ...
The team should improve a bit on that end with the impending return of Cleary and Datsyuk. While they are not defensemen, Cleary and Datsyuk are two of the Wings' better defensive forwards and the goals against category should start to go down once they're back in the lineup. Cleary is set to return against Ottawa on Feb. 2, and Datsyuk is pushing his return back to the Columbus game on Feb. 4. Even the return of Holmstrom should help in this area, as he's a good worker for loose pucks along the boards.
The rest of the defensive unit, however, needs to step it up. Cleary and Datsyuk will ease the tension on them with their strong back-checking, but this unit aside from Lidstrom has been downright bad since Stuart went down. Kronwall in particular has made some terrible plays that have led directly to goals for the opposition. The third pairing of Jakub Kindl and Ruslan Salei has been better at times because they're making the right plays, not the spectacular ones.
Perhaps the most surprising stat out of this is that Norris candidate Lidstrom is a -3 while sophomore player Jonathan Ericsson is a +12 so far this year. That's quite a shock for Lidstrom, who managed to post a +7 rating in an All-Star game.
It's not because Ericsson has been playing better; it's because Lidstrom has been constantly trying to cover up his partner's mistakes (a.k.a. Kronwall, who was a -6 in January). Meanwhile Ericsson's partner, Brian Rafalski, leads the team with a +16 rating. When you're going up against the other team's top line on a nightly basis and your defensive partner is continually giving the other team the puck, it's a tall order to stay on the positive side even for "The Perfect Human."
Calling Jiri Hudler and Todd Bertuzzi
In my 22-game breakdown of the Wings' season I pointed out that Jiri Hudler had not quite adjusted to his return to the NHL. 49 games in, he still isn't quite there. He's been better since then -- he has three goals and nine assists since Dec. 27 -- but Hudler still looks tentative at times. Notably he doesn't seem to want to shoot the puck, instead preferring to pass off to a teammate. That is really frustrating to watch because Hudler really does have a good shot and is a proven goal-scorer at the NHL level.
In that same preview, I also applauded Todd Bertuzzi for his strong play in the first two months. However, Bertuzzi has been a ghost on this team lately. Bertuzzi started the season on a four-game point streak and totaled four goals and 14 assists in the first month of the season. One could have argued Bertuzzi was the Wings' best forward in that time span.
But then, Bad Bert showed up. Bertuzzi scored just one goal from Nov. 30 to Dec. 31 and had just four points in the month of January. With Datsyuk and Cleary coming back his role is certain to diminish a bit, but it was not a reassuring performance from someone who the Wings needed to step up while key guys were out.
While the top lines struggle, the bottom lines thrive
While guys like Bertuzzi and Hudler were underperforming, someone had to pick up the slack while Detroit struggled with injuries. That responsibility fell on the trio of Eaves, Darren Helm and Drew Miller.
Eaves has been the biggest surprise of the bunch, already surpassing his goal total of 12 from last year in the first half. That was highlighted by his first career hat trick on Dec. 29 against Dallas, which cemented him as a legitimate scoring threat. But maybe we shouldn't have been surprised in the first place. After all, Eaves is a former first-round pick and scored 20 goals in his first NHL season in Ottawa. This may simply be a player finding the right circumstance to play in, a la Dan Cleary.
Fans have known about Helm's speed and defensive tenacity for quite some time, but Helm appears to be finding a finishing touch to go along with that as well. Helm had four of his six goals this season in January, which featured a brilliant defensive-steal-to-breakaway wrist shot that completely handcuffed NHL career wins leader Martin Brodeur last week. Miller had a sweet goal of his own too, using some Datsyuk-esque moves to wiggle his way around a defender against Columbus. Miller scored two of his three goals this season last month. In fact, six of his 11 total points came in January.
Even Kris Draper got in on the action while playing limited time, scoring all four of his tallies this season after Christmas. Temporary call ups Tomas Tatar, Jan Mursak and Cory Emmerton each notched tallies during their short stints with the big club. Sixth defenseman and rookie Jakub Kindl, who sat most of the year as an extra, even got on the board against St. Louis on Jan. 20.
While their roles will diminish in the coming weeks, Detroit now knows it can count on its bottom two lines to produce some offense from time to time.
The big picture
While Datsyuk won't be back until at least Friday, the Red Wings should see a big impact with the return of Cleary to the lineup against Ottawa. As the battered Wings return to the lineup one by one, this team should start looking more like the squad we saw win 16 of its first 22 games this season.
It's tough to criticize one of the top teams in the league -- their 66 points ranks fifth among all NHL teams -- but Detroit has allowed Vancouver to open up a seven-point lead in the West while Nashville has quietly closed the gap in the Central Division to five points. If they continue their current trend, the Central is by no means safely in the Red Wings' corner. That said, a healthier Red Wings in the second half should at least see them make a run again in the West, just like last season. The only difference is this time Detroit was able to stay near the top while they licked their wounds.