Red Wings Head West on Unexpected Winning Streak

No matter which way you cut it, the start of the 2019-20 season has been tough for the Detroit Red Wings. They have already seen an eight-game losing streak, a plethora of blowout losses, and several players struggle out of the gate. When you couple those dispiriting details with an upcoming road trip out to California, it seems like things could not get worse in Hockeytown.

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Yet, ahead of the road trip, the Red Wings have picked up back-to-back victories against two intimidating squads. The team has positivity surrounding it for the first time since the opening week of the season.

So, what went right for the team during those two wins, and is it something that they can continue to build on moving forward? Let us take a look at the surprising success the Red Wings found over their past two games and provide some expectations for their West Coast visit.

Red Wings’ Winning Weekend

On Nov. 8, the league-leading Boston Bruins came to Little Caesars Arena to face the Red Wings, who were sitting at the bottom of the NHL standings. As everyone expected, the Red Wings won that game 4-2, and convincingly outplayed the Bruins for large portions of the contest.

Likewise, two days later, the Red Wings orchestrated a third-period comeback against the Vegas Golden Knights. It was not the prettiest game, as the Red Wings only had 19 shots on net, but they still managed to grit it out and find a way to win.

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Contrary to popular belief, newcomer Robby Fabbri is not the only reason why the Red Wings won these games. Nevertheless, he has made a massive impact and further supported the idea that Steve Yzerman is a hockey wizard. Instead, two relatively simple things served as the biggest reasons why the Red Wings were victorious: adequate special teams and above-average goaltending.

A Special Teams Surge

In the win over the Bruins, while the Red Wings’ penalty kill gave up a goal, they offset the tally by scoring twice on the power play. Against the Golden Knights, they were 1-for-2 on the power play and perfect in two penalty-kill opportunities.

Unfortunately, the Red Wings have been abysmal on special teams for the majority of the season. They sit 22nd in the league in power-play percentage (16.1%) and dead last in the league in penalty-kill efficiency (68.3%).

Since the 1977-78 season, only three teams have ever finished a campaign with a penalty-kill percentage of less than 70%, which suggests that their fortunes may progress to the mean.

Detroit Red Wings Anthony Mantha
Anthony Mantha leads the Red Wings with four power play goals this season. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Paul Sancya)

Even if that occurs, the Red Wings have not had a power-play or penalty-kill unit finish in the top half of the league since the 2015-16 season. Coincidentally, that also marks the last season that they were in the playoffs. It is possible to win games without having elite special teams, but if your special teams are defective, it becomes incredibly easy to lose games.

Jonathan Bernier Bounces Back

Above-average goaltending is another reason why the Red Wings found success on the weekend. Coming into the game against the Bruins, the team was allowing a league-worst average of four goals per game.

While sluggish defensive play accounts for some of the blame, the Red Wings’ netminders were performing at a miserable level. Jimmy Howard had allowed a combined 13 goals across his previous three starts, and Jonathan Bernier had not picked up a win since Oct. 10.

Due to Howard’s recent struggles, Bernier got the start against the Bruins. He performed admirably, turning aside 26 of the 28 shots that came his way, which included some momentous stops in the third period. Bernier also did enough to win against the Golden Knights, making 17 saves in the tight-checking contest.

Detroit Red Wings Jonathan Bernier Jimmy Howard
Detroit Red Wings goaltenders Jonathan Bernier and Jimmy Howard are integral to the success of the team. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Bernier posted a .915 save percentage (SV%) across the two starts. So far this season, the league average is a .908 SV%, and last year the number finished at .910. If goaltenders can manage to be slightly above average each night, they will give their team a fantastic shot at winning the game.

Too often this season, the Red Wings’ goalie tandem has been vastly ineffective. Again, shoddy defensive play is also part of the reason why the team has allowed so many goals. In any event, the goaltenders need to be far better, and Bernier’s performance against two strong opponents offers a sliver of hope.

Problems in the Pacific Division

The Red Wings start their California road trip on Nov. 12 against the Anaheim Ducks. They face the Los Angeles Kings on Nov. 14 and the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 16. In recent seasons, this was an intimidating gauntlet of games, but so far this season, only the Ducks have a winning record.

While John Gibson remains an elite netminder, the Ducks are 26th in the league in goals per game (2.61) and 30th in power-play percentage (8.5%). Bernier and the Red Wings’ penalty killers have an opportunity to keep building their momentum against a low-scoring team.

Andreas Athanasiou
Detroit Red Wings center Andreas Athanasiou heads to California with points in three of his last four games. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

As for the Kings, they have been dismal across the board. They own the league’s 29th best power play (11.1%), 30th best penalty kill (70.5%), worst goals-against average (3.88 goals per game), and 27th best offense (2.53 goals per game).

On the other hand, the Sharks have had fantastic special teams, but possess an uninspiring 7-10-1 record. They sit 13th in the league in power-play efficiency (21.3%) and own the best penalty kill in hockey (91.2%), but their team SV% is 28th in the league (.882%).

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In summary, all of these numbers suggest that this has the potential to be a productive road trip for the Red Wings. Alas, they could also lose all three games in blowout fashion and revert to their old habits.

Realistically, two wins on the trip would be an overwhelming success. Not that long ago, it felt like this team was never going to win again. Sustained stretches of optimism are going to be rare for the Red Wings this season, but at least this past weekend provided some much-needed positivity.