Being from Detroit I have a some fluency with what is happening this season to Motown’s Winged Wheelers. The back-to-back defending Western Conference champions have had their share of struggles, but they are not a team to overlook. Despite their struggles the Wings remain just as potent a threat sans Marian Hossa, Johan Franzen, and Jiri Hudler as they have been for the last 15 years.
It is no surprise that Detroit has taken a dip in the standings, as they lost more than 100 of last year’s goals in the form of departed players. Even though it was expected, no one thought Detroit would be one point out of a playoff spot at the season’s halfway mark. To say they were bitten by the injury bug is an understatement. At one point this year Detroit was without Johan Franzen, Jonathan Ericsson, Jason Williams, Niklas Kronwall, Tomas Holmstrom, Brad Stuart, and Valtteri Filppula, and they have been without Andreas Lilja all season due to post-concussion symptoms. You know you are in trouble when the call-ups who are replacing the injured players are getting hurt.
Some may say, well, the Caps went through the same kind of thing last year. But the Caps’ maladies of a year ago were nowhere close to as devastating as what the Wings have had to endure this season. At one point the Wings lost their three top scorers, three of their best defensemen, and a solid member of the checking line. Not to mention they have serious salary cap problems and therefore little room to address the injury challenges. Any franchise in sports, no matter how good the front office is, will struggle with that many injuries.
Despite the injuries the Wings have stayed in contention. Detroit has done a nice job staying in contention with a few surprise players stepping up. Todd Bertuzzi, not a widely acclaimed offseason acquisition, has put together a solid 27-point season. Meanwhile, an under-the-radar signing I loved, Patrick Eaves, has seemed to get goals at just the right time. He has only six goals and seven assists, but he has a knack for scoring at just the right times. Of all the players who have stepped up Detroit is most excited about Darren Helm. The speedy center has 14 points on the season and is a player the Detroit media has jokingly dubbed, “the most dangerous man in hockey,” because of his speed. While the title is half joke, he is a guy that needs to be accounted for at all times since he can easily slip by the defense.
Speaking of the Detroit media, and most specifically radio, they are in love with the Washington Capitals. First off the Caps are Pittsburgh’s arch-enemy, and as the old saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It is not just simply a matter of sharing the same hate of the Penguins. Jimmy Howard has been talked about for the Calder Trophy because of his steller rookie season, but when he is talked about on the airwaves they are also quick to mention another young netminder by the name of Semyon Varlamov. Detroit is a hockey town, and it is never afraid to give props to another franchise. As far as the Eastern Conference goes, let’s just say the fans in red and white do like the red, white and blue.
With all this in mind, despite their struggles, the emergence out of nowhere of a promising young goalie, and their 10-9-5 road record, Detroit should be a tough challenge for the Capitals tonight. The Wings tend to get fired up for these kinds of games, but Washington is clearly the better hockey club. And think about this for a moment: when was the last time a Washington Capitals’ club went into a game against the Detroit Red Wings as something approaching a prohibitive favorite? The answer: many of our readers weren’t alive then. I think you have to go back decades!
Even with their stingy defense and strong goaltending it will be hard for the Red Wings to contain the high flying Caps offense, especially in the Verizon Center. Fans should expect Jimmy Howard to start in net and they should also anticipate a Capitals’ ‘W.’
All of this said, however, you don’t become a powerhouse franchise overnight, and in addressing the media at Kettler yesterday, Bruce Boudreau made what I thought were a couple of key observations about his Tuesday opponent. He noted that players seem to put on a Wings’ sweater and become better players. That’s what used to happen with hockey players who donned Bruins’ and Habs’ sweaters, he added. He was referencing what’s become nearly a two-decades’-long legacy of winning in Detroit. That has an impact on players. Call it a culture of winning. Washington is establishing it; Detroit’s had in place for years, and the Wings won’t relinquish it without a fight.
Tuesday marks the opening of what the Caps’ coach termed “a great test week.” He called the Wings “this year’s Anaheim” — a club that will likely qualify for the postseason and one no one will want to face there. The thinking here is that he’s right, and that Tuesday night will reveal less a changing of the proverbial guard and more just a heck of a game between two elite franchises.