2010-2011 NHL season preview: Detroit Red Wings

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nicklaslidstrom2.jpgLast season: (44-24-14, 102 points, 2nd in Central Division, 5th in Western Conference) The Red Wings’ season was a definitive roller coaster year. Injuries kept the lineup from playing at max power each night, Chris Osgood’s poor play kept Jimmy Howard in net most of the season while the team battled to stay in the playoff race. Once the team was healthy, however, they were the same Red Wings we’ve come to know in the past. The team got healthy at the best time of the season to get into the playoffs but both ran out of gas and ran into a scalding hot Sharks team in the playoffs. After back-to-back Stanley Cup finals appearances, it only made sense they’d get bounced out in the second round.

Head coach: Mike Babcock enters his sixth season asbench boss. While some would say that coaching the Red Wings has to be an easy job given the amount of talent there and owner Mike Ilitch’s zeal for winning, just remember the coaching tenure of Dave Lewis and call it a day. Babcock has done fantastic work for the Wings since taking over and has provided tremendous fodder for both bloggers and media alike with his quirky quotes. If you think Babcock could come under the gun at anytime during the season, you’re crazy.

Key departures: D Brett Lebda. Losing just Lebda as a depth defenseman isn’t exactly a crushing blow.

Key arrivals: F Mike Modano, FJiri Hudler, D Ruslan Salei. Despite salary-cap crunchiness, the Wings managed to improve the roster. Getting Hudler back from Russia was a good re-addition. Bringing home Modano gives the Wings a stable third-line center and Salei solidifies the defense a bit, provided he stays healthy.

jimmyhoward2.jpgUnder pressure: Welcome to the pressure cooker Jimmy Howard. The goalie kept the Wings afloat last season while the offense sputtered and the team played the majority of the season shorthanded. For his efforts, he was a Calder Trophy finalist and now any hopes of getting deep into the playoffs rest squarely on his shoulders. If Howard sputters at all, the confidence level in backup Osgood is at an all-time low and one that would cause panic in Detroit. Howard will need to be as good as he was last season to make the fans believe in him. Conveniently enough for both the Wings and Howard, it’s a contract year for him. Hello, motivation.

Protecting the house: Howard and Osgood will once again be the tandem in goal and ideally Babcock would like to get Howard more rest throughout the season. Osgood will need to do his part to earn the playing time, but if the Wings are in a better position in the overall standings than they were for most of last season, Babcock will be more apt to rest Howard on appropriate nights. The Wings couldn’t afford to do that for long stretches of time last season. After waiting for a few years for Howard to sharpen his game in the minors, he took over last year and played like the guy they thought they drafted in the second round out of Maine back in 2003.

Defensively, you should know the names here by now. Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall will be paired up while Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart are set up on the second unit. Salei will pair up with young Jonathan Ericsson and try to show the ‘Big Rig’ how to be a better defensively-responsible blue liner. Rookie Jakub Kindl is shaping up to be the team’s seventh defenseman but don’t be surprised to see Derek Meech get his chances here as well.

paveldatsyuk3.jpgTop line we’d like to see: Henrik Zetterberg-Pavel Datsyuk-Johan Franzen. It’s fun to piece together potential lines with a team that’s got essentially three scoring lines, but the one that tickles us the most is one that puts the ‘Euro Twins’ of Datsyuk and Zetterberg together with the ‘Mule’. Franzen has 40-goal potential while Datsyuk and Zetterberg are two of the best two-way players in the league. Datsyuk’s ability to dangle through traffic combined with Franzen’s nose for the net and Zetterberg’s all-around gifted play makes this line one that any fan should want to see on a nightly basis.

Oh captain, my captain: Lidstrom has been the man in Detroit since Steve Yzerman retired and whether or not you think this could be his last season, he’s done well by the Red Wings throughout his career. Captaining the team to a Stanley Cup in 2008 and being the lead-by-example sort of captain that Yzerman was is the sort of thing that makes Red Wings fans’ hearts swell up with pride. Being one of the best defensemen in the league, even at his age, doesn’t hurt matters any either.

Street fighting man: If there’s something about the Red Wings that’s been a truth over the years it’s that they’re no longer in the business of rock ’em-sock ’em hockey. They don’t employ an enforcer, they don’t have a player in the lineup that stands out as a brawler, even on a part-time basis. If you go to or tune into games with the Red Wings hoping you’ll see some fisticuffs, you’re going to be left disappointed. That said, if anyone on this Wings team is going to drop the gloves even semi-consistently it’ll be either Justin Abdelkader or Salei. Abdelkader has developed into a sandpaper-like player for Detroit getting under opponents skin and playing physically while Salei has a mean streak a mile wide playing a very physical game himself.

Best-case scenario: The team stays healthy, doesn’t show their age, and is able to roll three-deep with their scoring lines while allowing the fourth line to create havoc on the ice. Valtteri Filppula continues his ascent as a big-time player. Tomas Holmstrom continues to defy science and keeps plugging home 20 goals. Howard has a repeat season and is spelled by a revitalized Osgood, providing balance in goal and allowing Howard to go into the playoffs fresh and without stress. The defense does their thing and Ericsson is  able to grow into the next big thing on the blue line. The Wings roll over the Central Division, challenge Vancouver for the top seed in the Western Conference and use their veteran wiles to get back to the finals to raise the Cup, which would be the 12th time in franchise history.

Worst-case scenario: Age catches up to Detroit and the key players who just happen to also be older start feeling and playing like their age. Howard hits a belated sophomore slump and Osgood can’t save the day while he struggles. The lack of immediate help in Grand Rapids can’t help out should the injury bug bite again and the Wings check into the playoffs a broken and prime-to-be-beaten team, exiting in the first round to a team motivated to get one over on their long-time nemeses.

Keeping it real: Last season was about as bad as it has been for Detroit when it comes to facing adversity and it’s something this lineup will have better experience in dealing with should it happen again. That said, this team shapes up to be more dangerous. They can roll three lines that can score, they’ve got stability on all three defensive pairings, and they can better handle the occasional bad start from their goaltenders. Anyone writing off Detroit because of their age is crazy. Much like when people predict the ultimate demise of the Devils, they’re always proven wrong. The same can be said of Detroit. With Chicago weakened a bit, the Wings are set up to reclaim the Central Division and be one of the better bets to make the Stanley Cup finals.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Red Wings are a 5. They’ve got all-world talent, they’re a deep team and they’re dangerous in all facets of the game. With the amount of talent in Detroit, it’d be a bigger story if the Wings weren’t a major contender for the Cup. As it is, they, along with Vancouver and San Jose, are the biggest threats to come out of the Western Conference and challenge for the championship.

The Buzzer: Schwartz the hero, Gibson blanks Flames, Bruins clinch

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Players of the Night:

Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues: The Blues needed a win on Wednesday. They’ll need a few more still if they’re to push for the playoffs, but Schwartz scored a third-period equalizer and then the overtime winner 30 seconds into the extra frame to keep pace with the Anaheim Ducks (who won) for the second and final wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks: Gibson posted his third shutout in his past seven starts — and fourth of the season — saving all 29 shots that came his way in a 4-0 triumph of the Calgary Flames.

Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins: Malkin continued his pursuit of the Hart Trophy, netting a goal and adding an assist for his 41st goal (three back of Alex Ovechkin) and 91st point (three back of Nikita Kucherov).

Highlights of the Night:

Sidney Crosby did a thing – a very nice thing:

Jaden Schwartz, end-to-end to end the game:


Factoids of the Night:


Penguins 5, Canadiens 3

Coyotes 4, Buffalo 1

Blues 2, Bruins 1 (OT)

Ducks 4, Flames 0

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blues move closer to playoffs with OT win; Bruins clinch


Maybe the St. Louis Blues aren’t dead in the water after all.

In fact, despite selling off Paul Stastny at the trade deadline following two brutal loses that were part of a larger free fall at the time, the Blues have found another gear with just weeks left in the NHL season.

The Blues pulled themselves to within one point of the second and final wildcard spot in the Western Conference with a 2-1 overtime win against the depleted Boston Bruins on Wednesday Night Rivalry on the NHL on NBCSN.

The Bruins held the lead for two periods and change before Jaden Schwartz scored mid-way through the third period to tie the game and then 30 seconds into overtime to seal the win and move one-point behind the Anaheim Ducks (who were still in action against the Calgary Flames.)

That’s three straight OT wins for the Blues, who were without Vladimir Tarasenko due to injury.

The point for the Bruins was important, despite the loss, as they have now clinched a playoff spot, moving four points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Atlantic Division lead.

The Bruins were still missing Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and Rick Nash on Wednesday, yet still figured out a way to obtain something despite a stacked infirmary.

And part of that help is coming from a surprising place.

Last week at this time, Ryan Donato was a Harvard student, fresh off a five-goal performance at the Olympics for Team USA.

By Sunday, he was still a Harvard student but had signed an entry-level NHL contract with the Boston Bruins. On Monday, still a Havard student and now an NHLer for 24 hours, Donato scored his first NHL goal and added two assists in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

On Tuesday, Donato was back in class — you guessed it — as a Harvard student, an NHL player who had been excused from practice by the team that signed him two days earlier and scored his first NHL goal a night before.

On Wednesday, Donato scored again.

Meanwhile, the NHL could take a deeper look at a second-period hit to the head Brayden Schenn by on David Krejci.

Schenn was handed a two-minute charging penalty on the play, and Krejci stayed in the game, but judging by the above video, there was definite contact to the head and it appears Krejci was fortunate to be able to get up and skate away.

NBCSN’s Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones talked about if Schenn deserves to be suspended for the hit.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Sidney Crosby scores incredible goal, again (video)

AT&T Sportsnet

Oh, Sidney.

Just when you thought you’ve seen everything from Crosby, he has this uncanny knack and making sure you haven’t forgotten who he is and makes sure, once again, that you never will.

Crosby did Crosby things one again on Wednesday night against the Montreal Canadiens. I can save you the explanation of the second-period goal, since it’s pretty incredible and, as a consequence, tough to explain in words.

Let’s roll some of the footage here, shall we?

And another angle:

Carey Price didn’t have a chance.

Crosby has grown pretty good at batting pucks out of mid-air. Poor Antti Niemi:

Remember this from John Tavares?

It was pretty special too and done in similar fashion:

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Panthers hold keys to playoff fate

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Few teams have been hotter than the Florida Panthers down the stretch, something that had to be the case for the Cats to be in the spot they are currently in.

No, they’re not in a playoff spot at the moment — as a Wednesday they sit one point back of the New Jersey Devils for the second and final wildcard spot into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But a massive game awaits them on Thursday against one of the few teams that have been hotter than them in the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have strung together nine straight wins.

The Panthers hold two games in hand over the Devils, who squandered an opportunity to increase their slim lead in a 6-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. New Jersey has struggled as of late, going 4-6-0 in their past 10, including back-to-back losses now. The Panthers, meanwhile, eviscerated the Ottawa Senators 7-2 to pull within a point of them. Florida is five points back of the Philadelphia Flyers and six points behind their opponents on Thursday in Ohio. To thicken the plot, Florida holds three games in hand on Philly and Columbus.

Since the All-Star break, the Panthers have gone 18-5-1, have scored more 5-on-5 goals than any other team with 35 and are third in expected goals percentage during that time. The Florida Sun-Sentinel also points out that the Panthers have more points since the ASG out of any Eastern Conference team and the great goal differential (plus-27).

With 11 games to go, the Panthers sit in the driver’s seat when it comes to their own playoff fate.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner slightly downplayed the Columbus game in a conference call with the media on Wednesday.

“This time of year, it’s easy for these guys to get up for games, obviously how important they are,” he said. “It’s not going to be nothing over-the-top, extra special than what we normally do to prepare for a team. Obviously, it is an important game, but we have 10 more important games coming in.”

Despite losing key pieces in Jonathan Marchesseault and Reilly Smith over the summer — both are having career years with the Vegas Golden Knights — the current crop for the Panthers appear to have bought into Boughner’s message. And with Roberto Luongo healthy after missing two-and-a-half months with a groin injury, Florida is peaking at the right time.

“I think if you ask the guys, they’re having the time of their lives, having lots of fun,” Boughner said. “Let’s face it, we’ve been playing playoff hockey here for the last couple of months, just trying to dig in and scrape for points every night.”

Coming into Tuesday’s game, Luongo had gone 8-2-1 with a 2.51 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage with two shutouts in his past 11 starts — vintage Luongo, who’s been down this road before.

“Lu means everything to our team, obviously,” Boughner said, adding that Luongo will be in the driver’s seat in Florida’s last 11 games.

“He’s going to play a lot of hockey,” he said, saying it will be in the realm of an 80/20 split between Luongo and backup James Reimer.

Boughner said Aleksander Barkov — who has eight goals and 26 points in his past 19 games — is his vote for the Selke Trophy and that Keith Yandle is the glue that helps keep the room together. Evgenii Dadonov, who has 12 goals and 13 assists in his past 19 games, shouldn’t be forgotten.

Boughner said when the team was struggling earlier this season, consistency was the most frustrating part — noting that the team couldn’t string together more than two wins in a row.

“There was too much individual work going on,” he said. “It took us a long time to sort of get the team convinced with sticking with the process and playing as a team… less selfishness and more about the team.”

That changed with a five-game winning streak in the last half of December.

“That’s probably where the light went on,” Boughner said.

It’s burned brightly ever since.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck