It's still early and the recent trends for each team are taken from small sample sizes, but suddenly Friday night's first meeting between the Western Conference rivals appears to have extra importance placed on it.
The Red Wings (5-2-0), who will play host to the Sharks at Joe Louis Arena (7:30 p.m., NHL Network-U.S.), are reeling a bit after starting with a 5-0 mark. They've now suffered consecutive blowout losses on the road to the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets, and drew the ire of coach Mike Babcock for what he thought was a poor effort in Ohio on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Sharks (4-3-0) come in riding a wave of positive momentum after getting off to a 1-3 start. San Jose has won three straight and appears to be trending upward while the Wings try to keep from backsliding even more.
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Babcock has a different issue to deal with in Detroit. In both of his team's losses the Wings were dismantled, by scores of 7-1 against the Capitals and 4-1 against the struggling Blue Jackets -- which stands as the only win of the season for Columbus (1-8-1). Backup goalie Ty Conklin started both of those games while Wings starter Jimmy Howard was with his wife after the birth of their first child last Sunday.
Most concerning to Babcock was the effort he thought was lacking against the Blue Jackets.
"This last game in particular (against Columbus), we weren't physical at all," Babcock said on Friday morning. "If you're not going to be physical, if you're not going to get on the forecheck, you're going to have a hard time winning in this League. (Playing San Jose) is just what the doctor ordered."
Howard will be back in goal for Detroit on Friday night, but Babcock is more interested in the overall effort his team gives against the Sharks -- a team that's not only on a hot streak, but has also knocked Detroit out of the playoffs in the Western Conference semifinals each of the past two seasons, including a seven-game classic last spring.
"Here's a team we've played the last two years in the playoffs and we know real well that they're a high-end team," Babcock said. "To me, it's perfect. We've got to find out if we're willing to compete at that level."
Players from both sides are looking forward to it, as well. Nobody on either team thinks it's too early to put the "big game" label on the matchup, despite their seasons not even being 10 games old.
"They've knocked us out two years in a row in the playoffs," Howard said. "If you can't get up for this game you probably shouldn't be playing."
Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray agreed.
"Of course it's a big game," Murray said. "We usually compete with these guys for the top ranking and last year you saw how important it was to have home ice. We got Game 7 at home, which was huge. It's not a real rivalry until both teams have success against each other, and they always had our number in years past. Now, we've obviously gotten the best of them the past couple years. Any time you get two good teams that face each other a lot, it becomes a rivalry pretty quick."