NHL, take notice: The league’s best home team looks to have mastered its road game too (despite a heartbreaking loss Thursday evening in Nashville), and the early season days of a streaky, unreliable Red Wings team seem a distant past at this point. It’s no coincidence that the return of the consistent opponent-clobbering game play of the Detroit team we’ve come to know over the years has come on the heels of high-caliber play from some very necessary components, but just how good have they been?
We’ll start with Jimmy Howard. Success begins and ends between the pipes, and if you don’t have a reliable goaltender in net, winning games becomes infinitely more challenging. Luckily the Red Wings don’t find themselves anywhere in the vicinity of such a problem. While I could launch into another multi-paragraph tirade about how Howard was snubbed by the NHL, I’ll instead only sing his praises. The 27-year-old goaltender, on pace to start 70 games this season, leads the league in wins with 18. Lest you think his team is winning games for him, Howard also boasts a .929 save percentage coupled with a 1.90 GAA and 3 shutouts on the year. He’s been good. He’s been great. He’s been reliable. He’s been everything the Red Wings could ask for him to be, and sometimes a bit more.
The next Red Wing on fire? The magical Pavel Datsyuk. After a slump early in the season Datsyuk has absolutely lit up the scoreboard. Now leading the team in points, Pavel has been working his Datsyukian magic at a torrid pace, quietly accumulating 22 points over the last 14 games. As any Red Wings’ fan knows, Pavel’s excellence isn’t only on one side of the puck either (he has won 3 Selke trophies as the best defensive forward after all). The defensive skills he possesses have been just as awe-inspiring this season, and Datsyuk finds himself 2nd in the league in takeaways as a result. He’s here. He’s there. He’s everywhere. Whether it’s a pretty goal, a sneaky steal, or some other wizardly concoction the dynamic forward has come up with, he’s proving once again why many (including myself) consider him the best player in the game today.
The other half of the Euro Twins is lighting it up as well. Henrik Zetterberg, by his own admission, struggled greatly through the first portion of the season, but over the last 12 games he’s completely reversed his struggles. With 14 points in that span, Hank now has 21 on the season. Surprisingly, that’s not even good enough to place him in the top 3 on the team. His backhand is just as sure as ever, and his defensive game is still the one we’ve seen shut down Sidney Crosby time and time again when the Wings face the Pens. ‘Z’ has been hot over this last stretch, and his success has greatly helped the next member of our list catch fire too.
That player is of course Valtteri Filppula, whom Red Wings fans have been waiting on to break out for the better part of 3 seasons now. This year he seems to have finally done it. Already with 25 points, Filppula is easily on pace to break his current record of 40 in a season. Once a passer to a fault, Filppula (who is still a good playmaker) has finished on nearly every opportunity he’s been given this season. With easily the teams highest shooting percentage at 20.4%, Fil is 2nd in goals, having beaten opposing goalies 10 times thus far. There’s no arguing the how dangerous the Finn has been lately, that’s for sure.
Who’s leading in goals? None other than Johan “The Mule” Franzen, who also finds himself 2nd on the team in points, with 14 and 29 respectively. Only twice this season has Franzen put up points in a game the Red Wings have gone on to lose, giving strong indication that the Red Wings go as Franzen goes. The Mule has 13 points in his last 13 games, and in that span the Red Wings are 10-3-0. If Franzen is on his game, the Red Wings have a great chance to win no matter who they face.
The final forward on our list, Jiri Hudler, seems to have gotten the memo that this is a make or break season for his future with Detroit. Perhaps it was my December 5th article, in which I called he and others out, that got through to him, because since then he has 7 points in 5 games. Hudler looks to have recovered the talent he exhibited before leaving for the KHL for a season in 2009-10. Playing alongside Henrik Zetterberg and Valtteri Filppula certainly doesn’t hurt anything, but to give credit where it’s due, Hudler has played very well of late.
Last but very much not the least, the entire Detroit Red Wings defense deserves the utmost credit for the Red Wings recent stretch of success. They lead the league in defensive point production, but more importantly the squad has performed solidly in their own zone. Lidstrom, White, Kronwall, Stuart, Ericsson, Kindl-that’s a hell of a defense, and one that can almost always be relied upon. Detroit’s rank at 6th in goals against per game is due just as much to them as it is the stellar play between the pipes, and without this sturdy group, that also included rising prospect Brendan Smith for a brief stint, performing so exquisitely, the Red Wings wouldn’t be anywhere near their 19-10-1 record on the season.
With recent signs of players like Todd Bertuzzi and Dan Cleary catching the hot hand, the Red Wings are looking excellent headed into a very difficult end of December schedule. They’ve gone 10-3-0 over their last 13, outscoring opponents 51-27 in that same span. This is the best the Wings have played since their 2008 Stanley Cup run, and while other teams are having just as much success on the ice, it’s hard to think Detroit wont be making another run for Lord Stanley this season.