Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
The Detroit Red Wings have arguably been the best team in the NHL during the first three months of the season. They have shown a great blend of offensive prowess, defensive responsibility, and solid goaltending from the tandem of Jimmy Howard and Chris Osgood. The Wings’ success may not be the biggest surprise, but being on top of the heap in an insanely competitive Western Conference is certainly noteworthy in its own right.
The good times that have been rolling through Motown this season came to a screeching halt on Wednesday night however, as three-time Selke winner and Hart Trophy candidate Pavel Datsyuk tripped over Canucks forward Mikael Samuelsson in overtime and broke a bone in his hand or wrist in the process.
Fortunately for Detroit and Datsyuk, he will not need surgery and instead will just have the hand placed in a protective cast. The bad news is that he will miss at least four weeks of action, and that’s barring any unforeseen setbacks.
“It’s unfortunate, (but) there’s nothing we can do about it,” head coach Mike Babcock told the media after the game. “We got to find a way to dig in, just like we did tonight to get the game done.” He also joked that Datsyuk will “get a little bit of vacation so he’s ready for the playoffs.”
All joking aside, Datsyuk’s injury comes at a rough time for the Wings. They still have plenty of skilled forwards on the team, with guys like Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, and Daniel Cleary in the fold, and they also have guys like Nicklas Lidstrom on the blue line to help out with scoring punch as well. The problem they may encounter is the defensive presence that Pavel brings to the table. He may have had a down year last year defensively (even if he did win the Selke for a third season in a row), but he has re-found his form in a big way this season, and that presence in the middle caused a lot of teams issues when trying to get their offenses going.
Another serious issue for the team will simply be the idea of going through the rough and tumble Western Conference short-handed. The top 12 teams in the conference are all separated by nine points in the standings, and so any prolonged slump has the potential knock the Wings from the catbird seat to the doghouse relatively quickly. Goaltender Jimmy Howard emphasized that idea after the game, telling reporters “it was huge (the win). You look at the standings, everything’s gotten pretty condensed here so every point matters right now.”
The injury also comes as the Wings start a tough stretch of their schedule. Between now and Datsyuk’s probable return date in late January, Detroit has to play 11 out of their next 14 games on the road, with stops in Vancouver, Colorado (twice), Dallas, and Pittsburgh on the agenda. They also get the red-hot Philadelphia Flyers at Joe Louis Arena on January 2nd, and they’ll also have to face the sneaky St. Louis Blues twice in that stretch as well.
In addition to the tough road ahead, the Wings will also miss Datsyuk’s ability to win draws. Face-off performance is one of the most underrated keys to success in the NHL, and Pavel is one of the league’s best in that department. His face-off winning percentage is 56.2%, which is one-tenth of a percentage behind another very skilled draw-man in Sidney Crosby. Taking him out of the equation will mean that Detroit will start less possessions with the puck, and the penalty killing unit will be under extra pressure on defensive zone draws.
Finally, the question of depth at the center position has been brought back to the forefront in a big way now for Detroit. They are already without Mike Modano for the foreseeable future, and losing Datsyuk certainly will not help things in that area for the Wings. They are already having to rotate forwards in and out of the lineup due to Babcock’s lack of satisfaction with some of his troops, and so he’ll have to swallow his pride and dress one of those guys every night for the next four weeks or so.
With that in mind, two big questions need to be answered by the Wings over the upcoming stretch: who needs to step up in Datsyuk’s absence, and can they keep up with the pack in the Western Conference?
In terms of stepping up, it would be nice to see one of the remaining healthy Wing centers step up. Valtteri Filppula has had an up-and-down campaign for Detroit in the early going, but his seven goals and 10 assists are indicative of an ability to create chances on offense. He’ll need to be a bit more aggressive on that side of the puck, and Detroit fans will be keeping a sharp eye on #51 whenever he is on the ice.
Another player who could fill the void at center would be Henrik Zetterberg. He has had a good run at the wing spot for this team, but he is more than capable of filling in the middle of the ice for the Wings. If he does that, it will be up to Babcock’s rotating wingers to step up to the plate. Jiri Hudler and Patrick Eaves could be good candidates to do just that.
With all of the factors like tough road schedule and the already depleted nature of Detroit’s center corps, it would be easy to just assume that they will be unable to hold onto their perch atop the West while Datsyuk is out of the lineup. Fortunately for the Wings, however, they are still a team loaded with veteran talent that is used to adversity, and they will be just fine in Pavel’s absence.
Last season was a very trying one for the Wings, and Babcock kept the troops in good spirits during a rough couple of months. They were touch-and-go for awhile in terms of even making the playoffs, but they ended up finishing the year on a blistering tear and made the playoffs as a fifth seed. There is a reason why this team is a perennial playoff squad, and the years of experience that just about everyone in their dressing room has are the perfect tool for coping with losses like this one.
The next four weeks will not be pretty for the Wings, but they have everything it takes to make it through the tough times and come out on the other side ready for another deep springtime run.