There are just a few days remaining in the 2013-14 NHL season, meaning just about every game has major postseason implications heading into the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That's certainly the case with the Wednesday Night Rivalry game this week (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2, RDS), which matches a Detroit Red Wings team scrambling to make the playoffs for the 23rd straight season against a Boston Bruins team looking to wrap up home ice throughout the postseason.
With Detroit, you really have to start with Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar. They have been stars down the stretch for the Red Wings. The big point for me with those two is they are not replacing serviceably good players; they have stepped in and tried to fill the void left by injuries to Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, two of the best two-way players in the world.
I spoke to Jeff Blashill, who coaches Detroit's American Hockey League team, the Grand Rapids Griffins, and he was just raving about how professional Nyquist and Tatar were when they won the Calder Cup last season. Even though they had proven over and over again that they were ready for the NHL, they always had a great attitude playing in the AHL. Their attitudes were always upbeat. They were always gracious, even when they got sent back down for the Calder Cup run.
Blashill even said the veterans on that Grand Rapids team were raving about them because these were players who already had proven they belonged in the NHL. They came down with no complaints; they were all in. They were beloved by the veteran players and the group. That says a lot to me.
Right Wing - DET
GOALS: 27 | ASST: 18 | PTS: 45
SOG: 138 | +/-: 14
The Red Wings' sweet spot always has been puck possession with the ability to use speed. That's what they're doing now. They've been forced to rediscover that with all the injuries. The young players like Nyquist, Tatar, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco have done an excellent job.
A lot of guys see AHL players and say "he'll never make that play in the NHL." Just go to NHL.com to see highlights of all the plays those young players have been making. Tatar was the Calder Cup MVP, and the run to the Calder Cup last season was huge for this group's development. Tatar's big thing is being able to take that experience and bring that confidence to the NHL level.
It's possible to play in the AHL and do well there and then be awed by the NHL stage. You get a little paralyzed because you have so much respect for the players you grew up watching. Even with Datsyuk and Zetterberg, these are the players who influenced them. The young players practice with these iconic teammates and have the utmost respect without being in awe. That's been a big point that Tatar mentioned to me. It makes a lot of sense.
Coming down the stretch a number of top NHL teams have started to struggle a little but not the Bruins, who arguably are playing their best hockey of the season. I think that really speaks to two things. It speaks to general manager Peter Chiarelli, president Cam Neely and that management team, along with coach Claude Julien and his staff, but it also speaks to the character of the players they have there on that team. They've done a great job of showing how defending well and being structured can complement being skilled and making plays in the offensive end of the ice. One doesn't have to come at the expense of the other.
All Boston's "defensive players" are skill players, like Gregory Campbell and Chris Kelly. Throw Shawn Thornton into that mix; he's won the Stanley Cup twice and almost won it a third time last season. Then you add Carl Soderberg to that group. He was highly sought after coming out of Sweden. You can see why the Bruins coveted him so much. He's a natural center who can play wing.
That third line, with Loui Eriksson, Soderberg and Kelly, has been carrying the Bruins lately, along with their top line of David Krejci, Jarome Iginla and Milan Lucic, which nobody can defend.
Left Wing - DET
GOALS: 18 | ASST: 16 | PTS: 34
SOG: 141 | +/-: 9
All of the haters last season were saying Iginla was done. Is that another 30-goal season that I see? I'm not sure. He's just been such a natural fit with the Bruins. Him, Krejci and Lucic can beat you so many ways.
I just think the Bruins are the most complete and balanced team in the Eastern Conference. I don't know if there is a team that shows more consistency in playing to their identity than the Bruins do on a nightly basis. Still, they'll be tested against a young Red Wings team that is hitting its stride at the right time.