The Detroit Red Wings will be in a strange position when the Chicago Blackhawks come to Joe Louis Arena Sunday afternoon (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC): They'll be looking up to the Hawks in the Central Division standings.
The Wings owned the Central Division throughout the first decade of the 21st century. Detroit has won eight consecutive division titles, many of them by margins so wide that the race was over with several weeks to go in the season.
But as the longtime rivals prepare for Sunday's game, it's the Hawks, not the Wings, who are threatening to run away from the pack. Chicago has been on top of the division for most of the season and is battling San Jose and New Jersey for the top spot in the overall standings.
The Hawks have some of the NHL's top young talent, including forwards Patrick Kane
and Jonathan Toews
and defenseman Duncan Keith
-- all of whom will be playing in the Winter Olympics next month in Vancouver. It's a remarkable revival for a franchise that just two years ago was virtually dead in the water.
But Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said he could see it coming.
"We know that they have improved over the years," he said. "They've got some younger players who have been in the League for a couple of years now.
"We knew this was going to come -- that teams were going to catch up to us. Right now, we're the team looking up and trying to catch those guys. We're in a little different situation, but I think the team has really responded."
The Hawks ended a five-season playoff drought when they made the postseason in 2008-09. They got as far as the Western Conference Finals before Detroit beat them in five games.
"They're a real good team," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "I think them and San Jose have been the class of the West thus far. We played them in the playoffs last year and they gave us a real tough time. They've had some growth and they've been a little healthier than we are."
That's an understatement. Babcock's Wings have been battling a hellacious run of injuries that has left them without as many as nine regulars for some games. Still, they've endured and are in a pack of teams battling for the final playoff berths in the West.
"We're hanging on," Lidstrom said. "We're really playing within our structure. That's what you have to do when you have newer guys coming in and some of the guys coming up from the minors -- you have to play well defensively but play within your structure. I think we've been able to do that. We've been hanging on, trying to get points in every game. It's been a battle, but I think the guys have really been up to the task.
The Wings are starting to get healthier. Valtteri Filppula returned from a broken wrist just after Christmas, and Henrik Zetterberg and Dan Cleary came back from shoulder injuries last week -- giving the Wings back three of their top forwards. With a bolstered lineup, Detroit won three of four games on a Western swing, including an impressive 4-1 win at San Jose on Saturday.
"You get 'Fil' back and a couple of days later you get Zetterberg and Cleary back, and all of a sudden, you're a better team," said Babcock, who is still without forwards Johan Franzen and Jason Williams and defenseman Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson -- plus first-line winger Tomas Holmstrom, who went down last week with a broken foot. "For a long time, we didn't have that kind of skill set. When those guys come back, we're going to be a better team. In the meantime, we just have to keep grinding."
The Wings will be looking for a bit of payback against their own rivals. Detroit won the teams' first meeting, 3-2 at home on Oct. 8. But the Hawks shut out the Wings 3-0 in both ends of a home-and-home series just before Christmas -- the first time they had done that in 49 years.
"We weren't happy with the way we played in those games," Lidstrom said. "We've got to come out and play a lot better."
But he knows it won't be easy.
"Their young players are their best players too," he said. "They're playing really well as a team. They're hard to get scoring chances and score goals on. They have so much depth in that lineup -- their third and fourth lines can score goals too. It's a really tough team to play against."
Still, he and his teammates are looking forward to the challenge.
"It's almost like a playoff game when we face them now," he said. "They are fun games to be part of -- when you're playing against a top team and against some of the top young players in the League."
Author: John Kreiser | NHL.com Columnist