It’s startling to realize that the Blackhawks and Red Wings haven’t faced each other since that fateful Sunday last April: how far both teams have come in nearly nine months.
Although the Blackhawks won the 2010-2011 series with the Red Wings 4-2, it was the two particular games they lost at home against Detroit that stung the most. The first was the home season opener, when the Blackhawks raised their new Stanley Cup banner to the rafters, but the visitors won the game 3-2. The second was game 82, a 4-3 high-octane heartbreaker that would’ve meant the end of the Blackhawks season – if the Dallas Stars hadn’t managed to lose later that night.
The Blackhawks went on to push the Vancouver Canucks to a thrilling, historic 7-game series, and although they lost in overtime at the end, they had gotten there. Detroit was eliminated for the second year in a row by the San Jose Sharks in the second round.
Fast forward to this season, and the Blackhawks surged ahead early. The Red Wings floundered late in October, losing for two weeks including one of Columbus’s few early season wins. But the Wings have now reached 5th place in the West (47 points with 1 game in hand over Chicago) and the Blackhawks sit at first in the league with 50 points. A win tonight for Chicago keeps them atop the West; if it’s a loss, they’ll swap places with Vancouver, who also has 50 points but who has a higher ROW (2nd tiebreaker).
The Blackhawks-Red Wings rivalry is one of the oldest and fiercest in the NHL; as two Original Six teams, they have plenty of history between them. They currently play six games per year, and even with realignment next season, they’ll continue to see each other several times per season. It is this rivalry that was highlighted in the second Winter Classic, and while the animosity between the teams is not what it once was “back in the day”, there is plenty of healthy respect between the two teams for what each brings to the ice.
It’s odd that they aside from pre-season matchups, they haven’t faced each other yet this season, especially as they hold the NHL record for the most games played between two teams in the regular season. Not only that, but they’ll play each other three of their six season games in the next 16 days, twice on United Center ice and once at the Joe in Detroit. Aside from the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season (Jan. 20th), this is the latest in the season the teams have kicked off their season campaign since 1928-1929 (also Dec. 30).
As the teams head into tonight’s game, their seasons to date are not all that dissimilar: Chicago is 23-10-4 while Detroit is 23-12-1. Both are playing their best at home; both are 3-2-0 in the past 5 games. Their PK percentages are not far apart and their average PIM are both low.
There’s some interesting differences, too. Chicago has four players with at least 34 points; Detroit has just two over the 30 mark. Jimmy Howard is among the top goalies in the league this season (.927 sv% w/1.95 GAA) and is nearing the top of the pile for All-Star Game goalie voting, even though he’s a write-in candiate.
Tonight’s game will be an excellent barometer for both teams. Expect them to stay competitive for the reset of the season – Chicago would certainly like to claim the Central title again, and another deep Cup run. As always between these clubs, this evening’s game should be fast and exciting, as both teams prefer a high-paced, puck-possession style of play.
– Jimmy Hayes makes his NHL debut tonight for Chicago. He was an 2008 Draft pick and has scored 5 goals, 13 assists for the Rockford IceHogs this season (28 games).
– Jimmy Howard (DET) is on pace to tie Martin Brodeur’s NHL record (48) for victories in a season.