Game of the Week preview: Broken, beat, and scarred Red Wings stumble into playoffs

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While the Detroit Red Wings can play a hand in whether or not the Chicago Blackhawks make the playoffs when they face off against each other at 12:30 p.m. ET during NBC’s Game of the Week, the Red Wings have some of their own problems they’ll need to tend to as well.

When the Red Wings made the playoffs last season as the fifth seed in the Western Conference, they did so after making a huge run in March once the team got healthy after dealing with injuries all season long. This season, Detroit has led the Central Division virtually since the start. They’ve won the division title and are the third seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

After getting outstanding play from Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg all season and a revamped and renewed Nicklas Lidstrom, the Red Wings looked like the same red menace teams in the west became accustomed to seeing.

Things have gotten a bit dicey at the end of the season for Detroit, however. Unlike last March where the Wings roared into the playoffs, the Wings have been ice cold. Since March 2 Detroit has gone 7-7-4. Compare that to last season when Detroit went 16-3-2 from March 1 til the end of the season and you can understand why fans in the Motor City are a bit worried.

Making matters a bit more anxious this year is the health status of a handful of very important players. Henrik Zetterberg is out with a lower body injury and while he’s been sent for an MRI, no one’s sure how bad it is and how long he’ll be out for. We’d have to assume he’ll be back for the start of the playoffs, but if he’s not the Wings lose their best scorer and one of their best two-way threats. With 24 goals and 56 assists this year he’s by far in front of the team lead for points.

Pavel Datsyuk is far enough back of him thanks to his own injury worries earlier this season. Datsyuk missed 26 games of his own this year and has just 22 goals and 36 assists. You have to figure if he was healthy all year he’s a 30-goal guy but as it is, they’re happy he’s just back in the lineup and healthy.

Things aren’t any easier on defense where Niklas Kronwall is missing the rest of the regular season with his own lower body injury but Wings coach Mike Babcock says he’ll be ready to go once the playoffs begin. They’ll need Kronwall to be in good health as the Red Wings top four defensemen figure to shoulder a lot of the burden in the playoffs.

Their third pair rotation with Jonathan Ericsson, Ruslan Salei, and youngster Jakub Kindl have had some major struggles this year and haven’t figured themselves out as to who is going to get the call in the playoffs. While most teams find ways to hide that third pair, asking your top four defensemen to play mega-minutes through the playoffs is playing with fire.

A lot of teams would like to have these sorts of problems that center around being able to aptly prepare for a potential run at the Stanley Cup, but in Detroit where winning the Cup is the goal each season, these sorts of headaches and worries get magnified to a hysterical degree. How Mike Babcock handles the injuries going into the playoffs will be a storyline to play up and you’d have to think the Wings are hoping they don’t end up paired against a very physical team.

Pre-game reading: Does the NHL’s playoff format need fixing?

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— Up top, Brian Boucher and Mike Milbury have their say on NHL participation in the Olympics, something Gary Bettman continues to put into doubt.

— At least fans can still be certain there will be playoff hockey. That being said, does the NHL’s format need fixing? Because as it stands right now, at least one of Washington, Pittsburgh, or Columbus is guaranteed to be gone after the first round, and only one of those three can survive past the second round. The Capitals, Penguins, and Blue Jackets are first, second, and third in the overall standings, respectively. Hence, the debate. (The Washington Post)

— The Caps take on the Blue Jackets tonight in D.C., and Barry Trotz is looking forward to the fight for playoff positioning. The Caps, you’ll recall, coasted to first place in the Metro Division last season. But they can’t afford to coast now. “Having gone both routes now, I prefer this,” Trotz said. “Because it’s more meaningful. … It was in our hands too early last year, and I think it took a little edge off. You get too comfortable for too long, you get too soft.” (Washington Post)

— Don’t expect the NBA’s controversial practice of resting star players to become a common problem for the NHL. Said Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty: “I just think hockey’s a different kind of animal where I don’t think guys would want to do it. Guys are stubborn enough to probably fight it if they were asked and that’s how I would see that going down.” (Canadian Press)

— Why Dave Hakstol won’t be fired, by Flyers beat reporter Dave Isaac, who writes: “It took multiple pleas to woo Hakstol from a much more comfortable college job at the University of North Dakota. To fire Hakstol this early would be an admission from Hextall that this part of his grand plan — hiring the coach that he thought would grow with the roster — was wrong.” (Courier-Post)

William Nylander may sometimes get overshadowed in Toronto by fellow Maple Leafs rookies Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. But with 20 goals in 70 games, what Nylander has done is still very impressive. (The Hockey News)

Enjoy the games!

Bowling Green goalie Nell leaves school, signs with Rangers

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The Blueshirts added to their goaltending depth on Thursday, signing Bowling Green junior Chris Nell to an entry-level contract.

Nell, 22, just wrapped his junior campaign at Bowling Green, going 17-14-2 with a 2.15 GAA and .916 save percentage. This year, he became the school’s all-time leader in career shutouts, this after a terrific sophomore campaign in which he finished with a sparking 1.31 GAA and .930 save percentage.

An undrafted free agent, Nell now joins an organization with several young netminders in the mix. Mackenzie Skapski, a 2013 draftee, made his NHL debut two years ago but has struggled this season, splitting time between AHL Hartford and ECHL Greenville. Brandon Halverson, a second-rounder in ’14, has also split time between Hartford and Greenville, and was recently recalled to New York on an emergency basis.

New York has also drafted Russian netminder Igor Shesterkin (fourth round, ’14), Slovak Adam Huska (seventh round, ’15) and UMass-Lowell product Tyler Wall (sixth round, ’16).

 

On verge of missing playoffs, Red Wings aim to keep winning culture

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The Detroit Red Wings have no intention of tearing their roster down and undertaking a painful rebuild, a la the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Why not, you ask?

Because even though the Wings are going to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1990, and even though their leading scorer (Henrik Zetterberg) is 36 years old, they don’t want to lose the culture that made them so successful over the past quarter century.

“There are organizations where they have lost culture,” said head coach Jeff Blashill, per the Detroit Free Press. “They have missed the playoffs, and they miss it 10 straight years. We don’t want to be in this position again. This isn’t OK. That is the approach we are taking every day.”

We have heard other teams say similar things. For example, the Vancouver Canucks. (Which won’t make Wings fans feel great to hear.)

While there’s nothing wrong with trying to maintain a winning culture, the biggest challenge the Wings have is a lack of talent — particularly on the back end.

That’s up to GM Ken Holland to solve, and solve relatively quickly, given his lack of appetite for a lengthy rebuild.

“We’re going to continue to try and be competitive, we’re going to continue to try and make the playoffs and our ultimate goal is to eventually be a Cup contender,” Holland said a few months ago.

“To me, rebuild means eight to 10 years, and there are teams that have made the playoffs one year in 10 while rebuilding.”

Related: It’s going to be a very different draft for the Red Wings

Yeo more surprised than anyone to learn of Stastny injury

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For the second time since taking over as head coach, Mike Yeo has lost the services Paul Stastny.

This time, though, Yeo was caught off guard.

“It may sound misleading, but it was a completely separate injury that kept him out of (Tuesday’s) game and one that we believed would have him possibly in the lineup for us tonight,” Yeo told the Post-Dispatch of Stastny’s lower-body ailment, which will keep him out week-to-week. “We were surprised to hear that this came about yesterday.

“Believe me, I was probably more surprised than all the fans out there. So it’s a difficult one, but one that we’ll have to overcome.”

Stastny was limited to less than four minutes of ice time during Tuesday’s 4-2 win against the Colorado Avalanche. Initially, Yeo indicated that the issue wasn’t serious — and it very well may not haven been — but that’s irrelevant now, as an entirely new issue could potentially sideline Stastny for the remainder of the regular season.

The Blues are in good shape for a playoff spot, up eight points on L.A., but are jockeying with Nashville for third spot in the Central Division (both head into tonight’s action with 83 points). St. Louis also has 10 games left.

There’s no denying Stastny’s absence will be felt. Back when he missed four games in early February, Yeo noted how integral he was to the club.

“He’s usually the first guy over the boards for a power-play faceoff or the first guy over the boards for a penalty-kill faceoff, and those are key,” Yeo said, per the Blues website. “He’s a very important player for us. You don’t take out a top-line center from too many lineups where they don’t feel that.”

Limited to just 66 games this season, Stastny has still managed to score 18 goals — third-most on the team — and 40 points. He also averages a healthy 19:08 TOI per night.