Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What is missing from the Detroit Red Wings right now?

I spent the first 25 years of my life living in Pittsburgh so even when I moved to Detroit, I remained a Penguins fan even though it brings on an onslaught of criticism from the locals. Even though I still rep the Pens, I suppose that there could be worse hockey cities in which to live and over the past few years, I’ve watched the Red Wings play some great hockey including the back to back Stanley Cup Finals appearances against the Penguins.

This post season began with the Red Wings coasting through the Phoenix Coyotes and the 4 quick wins were a result of very solid, very consistent team efforts as they scored 18 goals and allowed just 10. However, as the Wings entered the second round against the San Jose Sharks, things have been a great deal more difficult – scoring only 2 goals in the first two games and allowing 4 – resulting in two quick losses. So what is going wrong for the perennial powerhouse from the Motor City?

If you look back at the strongest Detroit teams from the past decade along with most other championship contenders you have at least one of these two constants -

1. - a player or two who stands out above all others and literally takes over the series

2. - a stellar, unbeatable goaltender

Let’s start with goaltending as that is and always has been one of Detroit’s lesser problems. Even though the Wings haven’t always had a game-changing goaltender like Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur, they’ve gotten strong performances from guys like Chris Osgood and Dominic Hasek - both of which many will argue belong in the discussions with Roy and Brodeur (especially in Detroit). Both of those players have gotten into those series’ where they were simply unbeatable - like the 2008-2009 finals against the Pens where Osgood posted two shutouts and only allowed 3 goals in the Wings’ 4 wins en route to winning the cup. Even in their more successful seasons in the modern era when their goaltending hasn’t been unbeatable, this is a team that has won by getting “good enough goaltending” while winning by simply overpowering their opponents offensively.

Jimmy Howard wasn’t stellar last year and they lost to the Sharks in 5 games and while he has been strong this year – he hasn’t been strong enough. The 2nd (and winning) goal scored by San Jose in game 2 this past Sunday is probably the worst goal of Howard’s NHL career and maybe his entire hockey career – and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. I am not one to quickly put the blame on a goaltender (having been a goaltender myself) but for a goaltender playing in the NHL playoffs to simply flub a shot like that and cost his team the game is inexcusable. Game 2 was back and forth at 1-0 and their perfectly-executed powerplay goal in the third should have forced an overtime if not for Howard misplaying a pretty routine save. However, even in allowing that embarrassing goal the fault still can’t be wholly placed on the young netminder because for the second game in a row, the Red Wings only managed to score one goal.

Why aren’t the Red Wings scoring? It seems to me that with this year’s team, they don’t have “that guy” who is controlling the play and setting the pace for the rest of the team. When the Wings are firing on all cylinders they have at least one guy who seems to always be making the big play or who is always around the puck. Before they retired or went elsewhere, the Wings had guys like Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov…guys who seemed to always be on the ice and when they were on the ice – they seemed to control the play. When the Wings have found ways to win it has been because of one or two guys who gave the other team no choice but to worry about them every time they touched the ice. Right now, none of the Wings are stepping up and being that guy who is a constant concern to the Sharks. It doesn’t need to be the superstars, as even when high profile guys like Datsyuk or Zetterberg were slowed down in the past, “role players” like Valtteri Filppula or Johan Franzen stepped up and took over the games while the “stars” were slowed by the opposing defense. A fine example of that happening is the 2008-2009 Stanely Cup Finals where those two created a seemingly constant headache for the Penguins, even though the Pens eventually won that series.

The Red Wings have gotten a very consistent effort out of every player on every line this season but in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, that isn’t enough. The Wings head back to the friendly confines of Joe Louis Arena tonight and the Wings face what should be looked at as a must-win game. Whether they get their first line or fourth line taking over – they need someone to step up and become the line that has the Sharks scrambling to figure out a new defensive plan. The Red Wings best chance to win this series is to put up bigger numbers against a Sharks defense that has been very strong throughout the first two games but when you look at the fact that San Jose gave up 20 goals in 6 games against the Kings in round 1, the Sharks can be scored against…now the Wings just need to do it. That is easier said than done but with the Wings’ precise execution of the power play late in Game 2, a little more powerplay time for Detroit and the support of the home team crowd could spur the Red Wings offense to do what the home crowd expects – score a ton of goals in fantastic fashion and run the Sharks out of town with a 2-2 series tie.

The other option is for Jimmy Howard to show the rest of the league that he deserves a place among the best in the history of the playoffs and take over the series on his own. Howard absolutely has to spring back from his struggles in the last game if the Wings are to have a chance – even though he only allowed two goals for the second time in a row. Unless the Wings can get their offense going similar to what they did in the first round against Phoenix, they are going to have no choice but to fall into a goalie dual and right now, San Jose has the advantage as Anti Niemi has been the hotter or the two goaltenders.

The Red Wings and Sharks faceoff at 8pm Wednesday night and you can catch the action on Versus.

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