2011-2012 season preview: Detroit Red Wings

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2010-2011 record: 47-25-10, 104 points; 1st in Central; 3rd in West

Playoffs: Defeated Phoenix 4-0 in Western quarterfinals, lost 4-3 to San Jose in Western semifinals

It wasn’t long ago when the Red Wings were within a single game of winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, but after a couple of second-round exits to San Jose, some people think Detroit’s best years are behind it. That could be true — but let’s face it, the bar was set pretty high. Even if the Wings aren’t as good as they were three or four years ago — they’re still good enough to compete with any team in the league on any given night.

Offense

With guys like Pavel Datsyuk and Hank Zetterberg leading the way, the Wings have one of the most potent offenses in the league. Their combination of top-end talent, underrated forward depth, and a strong power play had Detroit as the second best scoring team in the NHL last season. The entire stable of forwards returns intact this season as they look to take on the league once again.

One of the keys to the Red Wings’ success in recent years has been their ability to put the right players in the right roles. They expect Zetterberg and Datsyuk to be superior two-way players that score at least a point-per game. But behind the two stars, they have forwards all over the roster that can fill a specific spot. Dan Cleary, Todd Bertuzzi, and Tomas Holmstrom are not asked to do anything more than their role — go to the dirty areas and pitch in goals through hard work. Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula are asked to develop into the next generation of high-end scorers and energy guys like Patrick Eaves, Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm are asked to play superior energy roles. It’s a formula that has worked for the last 20 years.

Defense

Offseason news on the blueline was a mixed bag for the Wings this summer. Nicklas Lidstrom deciding to come back for another season must have had management dancing on tables, but Brian Rafalski’s retirement caught most people by surprise. They brought in Ian White to fill Rafalski’s top-four role and they’ll expect 6-foot-5 Jonathan Ericsson to start earning his new contract in a bottom-pairing role. With Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall playing behind Lidstrom and Ian White, the Red Wings will be set for about 50 minutes every game.

Goalies

Jimmy Howard has proven in his first two seasons that he can win. He’s racked up 74 wins in the NHL and is unquestionably the No. 1 goaltender for the Wings. But despite the strong record, Howard’s numbers took a dip last season. His save percentage decreased from .924 during his rookie season to a pedestrian .908 last season. Likewise, his goals against average was a stellar 2.26 in his first campaign, but his 2.79 mark last season left plenty to be desired. The Wings have enough scoring to compensate for a few off nights by their goaltenders, but if they want to return to the elite team in the playoffs that they expect to be every season, Howard will need to improve.

Coaching

Many people will tell you that Mike Babcock is the best in the league — and it’s hard to argue. He’s shown throughout his coaching career that he can manage expectations, work well with superstars, put players in the right role, and still meet lofty expectations. He’s a great motivator and can manage the in-game coaching decisions with the best of them.

Breakout candidate

On a team with so many established veterans, finding a player to break out onto the national scene could be difficult. For the Red Wings, it could be White, who is simply getting the best opportunity of his career. After signing with the Wings in the offseason (his fifth team in less than two years), White is slated to play next to Lidstrom. He showed at the end of last season with the Sharks that he can be a valuable player on a good team. Now that he finally has a solidified role with a team and has gained a few years of NHL experience, it wouldn’t be surprising to see White take a huge step. Breaking his career high of 38 points in 2009-10 is certainly within the realm of possibility.

Best-case scenario

For the Red Wings, the best-case scenario is always the Stanley Cup. With the overall depth of established players all over the roster, surviving the playoffs could be in the cards. They don’t have many question marks: the Red Wings just need their established players to play the best of their ability. If they do, the Central Division and Western Conference crowns are reachable goals.

Reality

The Red Wings are certainly one of the very good teams in the league. If the team stays healthy, Detroit should make it back to the playoffs for the 21st consecutive season (the longest active streak in major pro sports). The Red Wings should compete with the Blackhawks (and perhaps the Predators) for the Central Division crown — even if they fall short, they should battle for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Look for the Wings to have yet another 100-point season, but fall just behind the Blackhawks in the Central race.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin’s blast lifts Capitals in OT, Sheary speeds by Panthers

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Player of the night: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin has already reached double digits in goals scored in this new campaign. The Capitals’ star recorded his 10th goal of the season on Friday and it counted as the overtime winner against the Detroit Red Wings.

The Capitals trailed late in the third period, but T.J. Oshie scored the tying goal and Ovechkin won it on a power play less than two minutes into the extra period, as he deployed that famous one-timer slap shot from his off-wing. This time, Petr Mrazek was victimized by the wicked slapper.

Ovechkin is now only two goals behind the entire Montreal Canadiens team — in the same amount of games.

Highlight of the night:

What a weapon speed is in today’s National Hockey League. Conor Sheary illustrated that once again, as he saw a little bit of room down the left side and flew around Alex Petrovic before making a move to the backhand on James Reimer. That goal counted as the eventual winner, as the Penguins defeated the Panthers 4-3. Earlier in the third period, Sheary and Roberto Luongo came together near the Florida net, causing Luongo’s right hand to get caught against the post, injuring the Panthers’ netminder.

Factoid of the night:

It was a milestone night in Winnipeg for Blake Wheeler and coach Paul Maurice.

Scores:

Vancouver 4, Buffalo 2

San Jose 3, New Jersey 0

Washington 4, Detroit 3 (OT)

Pittsburgh 4, Florida 3

Winnipeg 4, Minnesota 3

Anaheim 6, Montreal 2

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Video: Price takes out his frustration, as the Habs were crushed again

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It’s gone from bad, to worse, to an absolute nightmare for the Montreal Canadiens.

A three-game trip through California is never fun for opposing teams, but this was misery for the Habs. They were outscored a combined 16-5 in three games against the Sharks, Kings and Ducks, with few, if any positives beyond the second period in a 6-2 loss in Anaheim on Friday.

Montreal hasn’t won since its season opener on Oct. 5, and is now on a seven-game losing skid, unable to generate much offensively with a league worst 10 goals scored through seven games before tonight, while giving up plenty of goals at the other end.

That is a recipe for disaster and even though it’s still early in the season, this has to be a major concern for coach Claude Julien and, in particular, general manager Marc Bergevin.

Read more: Is there a trade to be made between the Penguins and Canadiens?

Down by three after the first period, Montreal had 30 shots on goal during the middle frame and managed to trim Anaheim’s lead down to one heading into the third period. And then, just when it seemed like maybe they were on a path toward an inspirational comeback on the road, it all fell apart.

Three straight goals for Anaheim, with journeyman forward Derek Grant scoring the first two goals of his NHL career — in game No. 93.

As you can probably tell from the clip below, Carey Price was visibly irritated, as he whacked his goalie stick against the post after the sixth Anaheim goal.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Canucks defeat the Sabres, as the losing continues in Buffalo

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The Buffalo Sabres remain stuck on just a single win to begin the season. Jack Eichel is sick of losing, but the losing continues.

Returning home from a four-game road trip out west, the Sabres had an opportunity ahead of them to get back into the win column. The Vancouver Canucks, hardly a powerhouse in any way, were in town. They had played — and lost — the night before in Boston. And then the Sabres went out and were thoroughly outplayed in a 4-2 loss that, one could argue, flattered the hosts.

They weren’t able to take advantage of an early lead after Justin Bailey was allowed access to the net off the rush. They couldn’t hold the lead after Eichel dangled Ben Hutton and then scored on a shot Jacob Markstrom should’ve stopped. They gave up yet another short-handed goal, putting that number at six for the Sabres just eight games into the season.

Instead, Buffalo spent most of the night in its own end, giving up 37 shots through two periods. Hard to pin this, in any way, on goalie Chad Johnson.

“First of all, I thought we didn’t defend well and close quick enough in our defensive zone. We were a little bit slow there tonight. We need to be more aggressive and on the puck,” said head coach Phil Housley after the game.

While the Sabres were badly outplayed, one of the deciding moments in this game was a controversial video review in the second period. Vancouver took the lead on a goal from Daniel Sedin, although Housley challenged for a potential offside after it looked like Jake Virtanen didn’t have control of the puck as he entered the zone.

The linesmen looked over the play for a lengthy review before officials came to the conclusion that Virtanen did have control of the puck as he broke in over the blue line. The goal stood and the Canucks controlled the remainder of the game.

“I disagree with the call, totally,” said Housley. “In my opinion, he knocks the puck out of the air. He never has possession.

“But I call that 10 out of 10 times offside and I would continue to challenge that again.”

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Roberto Luongo leaves game with apparent injury, as Panthers fall to Penguins

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The Florida Panthers lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday. Making matters worse was the fact their goalie Roberto Luongo left the game in the third period with an apparent hand injury.

The injury occurred after a collision in the crease with Penguins forward Conor Sheary.

Luongo immediately went down to the ice in pain. A replay from above the net showed Luongo’s right hand getting caught in an awkward position against the post after coming into contact with Sheary as he cut through in front of the crease in pursuit of the puck.

The injury forced James Reimer off the bench and into the game with the Panthers trailing by a goal. MacKenzie Weegar tied the game for Florida before Sheary scored the eventual winner about eight minutes later, on a night when the Penguins fired 48 shots on the two Panthers goalies.

Luongo gave up three goals on 36 shots before leaving the game. The Panthers now head out on the road. They’ll visit the Washington Capitals on Saturday.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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