The Detroit Red Wings are the toast of the NHL with their league record 23-game win streak*. They’ve opened up a cushion in the tough Central Division, holding a five-point lead on St. Louis, while Nashville and Chicago have slipped back into the pack. The Wings are plus-2 points on Vancouver for the top seed in the conference. Will this win streak be just a nice little footnote on the season, or is it the sign that this proud franchise is going to successfully navigate the snakepit that the NHL playoffs often are for favorites? TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the team overall and then at what we can learn from their most important games over the past two months.
Detroit is a very balanced team. They play well on both ends of the ice, ranking fifth in both goals scored and goals allowed. Their ranking here correlates fairly close to where they are shots taken and allowed, so there’s nothing fluky happening here. The Wings are superb in the straight 5-on-5 play, where they are the league’s best. The power play is iffy, ranking in the middle of the pack and the biggest concern is their ability to kill penalties, where they are subpar.
Goaltending is a team strength, with Jimmy Howard doing a solid job, and when he missed the past five games with a broken finger, Joey McDonald can step right in without missing a beat. The goalies are protected by a solid core of defenseman led by 41-year-old Nicklas Lidstrom, along with Brad Stuart, Jonathan Ericcson, and Ian White, enabling them to go two lines deep with quality. On the frontline, this is a team that has no clear scorer, but has a lot of players piling up assists, suggesting a team that moves the puck extraordinarily well. It starts at center with Henrik Zetterberg and Valtteril Filppula, and Pavel Datsyuk is a skilled talent on the right wing. Johan Frazen and Danny Cleary are consistent contributors. The latter is out right now, but will be back in plenty of time for the playoffs.
To break down how the Red Wings fare in individual games, what I’ve done is go through their schedule since Christmas and pick out games against playoff-caliber opponents. These are almost exclusively teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today and the only exception is one game against Calgary that I included because it might be a 1-8 matchup in the first round. There are 14 such games and Detroit is 11-3. The losses indicate I obviously included road games, as I didn’t want to get an excessively rosy picture by focusing just on the win streak.
The first thing that stands out is the extraordinary teamwork the Wings rely on. Perhaps the most astonishing stat was that in none of the 14 games did they have a player score two goals in a game. A lot of goals they did get had two assists, the reason it’s possible for them to have a number of players with good season assists numbers, but no one really standing out as a scorer. They do a great job in getting more shots than their opponent—often by substantial numbers, thereby putting the percentages of luck on their side.
Let’s start on December 27 when they beat St. Louis 3-2 and then did it again four nights later 3-0. The penalty kill was a problem here as both Blues’ goals came with the man advantage. If we jump ahead to games against Phoenix and Chicago on January 12th and 14th, we see them scraping out one-goal wins, one of them in overtime. But we also see huge disparities in getting shots, with Detroit winning that battle by a combined 85-54. In all likelihood, it’s not the narrow wins that were a fluke, but that the game was close to begin with.
Five days later in Phoenix, Detroit escaped with a shootout win, a burden made necessary by the fact they went 0-for-5 on their power play chances. This facet of their game improved greatly when they played St. Louis again, as they scored twice with a man advantage and beat the Blues 3-1. A tough visit to Vancouver was survived in a 4-3 shootout win thanks to a 43-25 shot advantage. But it’s concerning that the Canucks scored three goals on just 25 shots and got two in the third period to tie the game. The Wings survived a home game with Philly when they tied it with less than two minutes left and won early in overtime. Scoring twice on the power play bailed them out and kept the home win streak alive. They won again late against Nashville last Friday when Datsyuk broke a 1-1 tie with five seconds left. It’s worth nothing that two players got assists on this play, showing a lot of composure in getting a good shot in the waning seconds.
Detroit kept San Jose at bay in a game a lot of the country saw on NBC this past Sunday, winning 3-2, but giving up 33 shots. The losses in this timeframe were, naturally, all on the road. They lost 3-2 at Chicago, a game where they played on the defensive thanks to five penalties, but killing the Blackhawk power play kept it a game. They came out flat on January 7 in Toronto and surrendered three first period goals. The Wings clawed their way back, getting 40 shots to the Leafs’ 18, but the hole was too deep. And on February 6 they lost in Phoenix thanks to poor work on the power play, both their own—where they gave up a shorthanded goal—and on the Coyotes’, who scored with the man advantage and won 3-1.
I’ve worked all season long on the assumption that Detroit was getting elite-level goaltending from Howard, but this review leads me to conclude otherwise. It’s the defensemen that deserve the bulk of the credit for this team’s ability to prevent goals. What this means for the playoffs, is that Detroit can’t put Howard or McDonald in situations where they have to come up with a hero’s effort. This is often something that’s necessary for a team to make a Stanley Cup run. While it’s not as thought the goalies here are bad, we can’t say Howard is more likely to get hot than say, Pekka Rine in Nashville, Roberto Luongo in Vancouver and certainly Brian Elliot in St. Louis.
Similarly, the Wings need their entire offensive unit working in tandem, as they don’t have one player who can bail them out. If this were the NBA I’d worry more, but in hockey I like the fact that they rely on everyone and they excel at getting a lot of shots.
If the Stanley Cup is decided by one player putting a team on its back, it won’t be Detroit. But if you’re looking for a solid, consistent hockey team that can go through four rounds and can at least put the percentages of fate in their favor, the Red Wings are a solid bet. I like them to hold off Vancouver for home-ice advantage and Detroit deserves to be the favorite to win it all.
*With the home winning streak, note that the NHL’s use of the shootout is a new phenomena and having this kind of streak was virtually impossible prior to 2006. It’s not that Detroit’s accomplishment isn’t great, but history would be better served if this eras were considered distinct, and the Wings simply noted as the best of the post-shootout era.