It’s January 20 and the Red Wings don’t have the division wrapped up. They’re not scouting playoff opponents. These games in the snowy, wintry months don’t come with the prefix of “meaningless.”
What is this, 1990?
Twenty years ago. That’s how long it’s been since the Red Wings failed to qualify for the NHL’s regular season afterglow. It’s easily the longest current streak in the league.
Ahh, but what about keeping the streak going? As I bang away on the keyboard, the Red Wings are one point out of the eighth and final playoff spot. They’re also just two points out of sixth place, and five points out of fourth. As Mickey Redmond would say, “You can throw a blanket over ’em!”
You may consider the following just another pea-brained piece of analysis by a bottom-feeding sports blogger. That’s OK—I’ve been called worse. Regardless, here are five reasons why the Red Wings will keep their playoff appearances streak alive, and five reasons why they just might not.
Hold your applause till the end please.
WHY THEY WILL
1. Goalie Jimmy Howard. You heard me.
Howard, who some of us—present company included—thought might not even be on the team at this juncture, is playing wonderfully and can’t be disregarded as a key player in the Red Wings’ season going forward. His watershed moment came in Los Angeles a couple weeks ago, when he stopped 51 of 52 shots. And he’s humble and knows his place, which doesn’t hurt. But he’s also gaining confidence, and that doesn’t hurt even more.
2. They’re getting healthy, slowly but surely. The troops have been in sick bay for quite some time. It started early with Johan Franzen going down, which set the tone, as it turned out. One by one the flies have dropped, but time heals all as they say, and the Red Wings are getting people back—gradually. They should just about be up to full strength come mid-March.
3. They have the experience. Or they’re too old. But this is in the “why they WILL” category so let’s look at the glass as being half full—even if it is with Geritol.
The Red Wings have been through more battles than a G.I. Joe doll. Granted, playing for their playoff lives—in the regular season—hasn’t been a battle they’re really used to, but when panic might set in, who wouldn’t want to look around a dressing room and see so many Stanley Cup winners and veterans?
4. Coach Mike Babcock. If anyone ought to garner serious Coach of the Year consideration, it’s Babs. To lose the amount of talent that he did—via free agency and injury—and to be playing a rookie goalie most of the way, and STILL having his team in the hunt…that’s impressive, no?
He won’t win it, but Babcock’s ability to keep everyone’s head up and not feel sorry for themselves, plus the way he’s been able to get Todd Bertuzzi to play both sides of the ice, speaks volumes about the man’s coaching chops.
5. GM Ken Holland. Holland and his scouts keep coming up with young players to fill in, and his trade deadline success rate is pretty solid. If need be, don’t be surprised if Holland comes up with a smart move or two at or around the deadline to give Babcock the needed ammo for his gun. The Wings are again up against the cap, but that hasn’t stopped Holland in the past. This wouldn’t seem to be the season to stand pat, as the Red Wings did last year.
OK, WHY THEY WON’T
1. Goalie Jimmy Howard. You heard me again. Jimmy falls in both categories because he’s a rookie and we have no idea how he’ll handle the stretch run. If he falters, how long before that’s the diagnosis, and how many points will the Red Wings have lost trying to figure that out? Yes, there’s veteran Chris Osgood lying in wait, but a Howard implosion can’t be a good thing, with the race so tight and Ozzie being inconsistent—again—in the regular season.
2. The penalty kill. First, a word about special teams. OK, a few words. They run in streaks. The Red Wings recently went on a miserable 2-for-45 power play stretch. Then they got hot and scored a few PP goals. The same thing happens with the kill. But overall, the Red Wings’ 81.1% kill rate lands them in the middle of the pack, and has shown the potential to go really sideways for games at a time. In a tight race when points are precious, allowing a late PP goal could be very costly.
Kind of like last night in Washington, eh?
3. Chemistry. I really hate this word, because I think it’s one of the most overused ones in sports, but how else to put it when you’re concerned about how the returning players will fit in? Hockey is notorious for its rust when players have missed a lot of time. Just bringing guys back isn’t necessarily a magic wand. Timing is so crucial, and so is playing with each other. Practice simply doesn’t replicate that.
4. The “big boys” not being the big boys. Yes, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, I’m looking at you. Bertuzzi, who went into the regular season as a third or fourth line guy, has more goals (13) than both Z (12) and Datsyuk (11). This is great for Bertuzzi, but bad for the Red Wings overall. Zetterberg has battled injury—he did last year in the playoffs, too—but his production in 41 games played, extrapolated over a full season (24 G, 50 A) is pedestrian for a player of his skill. Hank is a 35 goal, 60 assist guy—at least. And Datsyuk has been as fancy as ever with the puck, but hasn’t finished well at all.
Zetterberg’s scoring pct. (goals/shots on goal) of 7.7% and Datsyuk’s of 9.9% pale in comparison to the elite players in the league, who are well into double digits. Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin, who leads the league in points, has a whopping 21.4 scoring pct. (21 goals/98 SOG). The Red Wings’ big guns have to deposit the puck into the net with more frequency, plain and simple.
5. All good things must come to an end. Or, otherwise known as the Law of Averages. The Red Wings have been dodging the authorities on this law for years, and maybe now it’s simply time for them to miss the playoffs, not that it’s likely to be a regular occurrence.
So there you have it. Five Why, five Why Not.
Talk amongst yourselves. I’ll go get the beer and pretzels.