Of all the great Wednesday Night Rivalry matchups we've had so far this season, this week could be one of the most intriguing as the Philadelphia Flyers visit Joe Louis Arena to take on the Detroit Red Wings (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
It's been a tale of two seasons for both of these teams. Detroit had trouble finding consistency in the early going but has looked very impressive in winning four straight, including resounding wins against the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders, both without Pavel Datsyuk, who has been out with a concussion and is questionable for Wednesday.
Detroit's 4-2 win against the Ottawa Senators on Sunday was impressive for many reasons. It starts with Darren Helm being back after dealing with a back injury that limited him to one game last season. I know coach Mike Babcock is really bullish on Helm. He seems to make a big difference with their team and has seven goals in 14 games this season. He is very fast and adds a lot of speed to that lineup. By the time you complement that with rookies Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, you're getting young legs that can help an older, experienced Detroit team play a more up-tempo game. They were pushing the pace against Ottawa. They actually out-skated Ottawa in that game, which you wouldn't expect coming into the matchup just based on both teams' personnel.
I think Detroit's defense did a good job of moving the puck in transition too. Brendan Smith was pretty impressive in that game. I want to see more of that from him. Niklas Kronwall made a couple of good stretch passes as well.
If you read this blog, you probably know I'm also a big Jimmy Howard fan. He's one of the most improved goalies in the League in the past three years. He's made himself into an All-Star and I love where he's taken his game. But right now, he's not 100 percent on his "A" game. Fortunately they were able to sign Jonas Gustavsson, who left the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent in 2012. Last year was kind of an up-and-down year for him, but he's played very well this year.
Beyond the numbers, Gustavsson is playing a more settled and calmer game. It hasn't robbed him of being athletic. I notice that he's getting into position early and making more controlled saves. As a result, he's been much better. He's really settled his game compared to what I saw from him when he was in Toronto.
Detroit has long been known for their crafty veterans. But the young players they've brought in, along with the return of Helm, have made them faster. It forces teams to respect their speed and generates more chances offensively. Because Detroit can make so many good plays, they've always been able to go east-west. But now they can go north-south too.
The Flyers have also become a different team since coach Peter Laviolette was fired on Oct. 7 and replaced with Craig Berube. They've relied primarily on defense since then and it's working for them.
They went 9-4-2 in November and have featured one of the League's stingiest defenses. Being more of a defense-first team gives them more consistency and structure to their game. They have a system they can rely on and protects them. I give Craig Berube credit for that but I still think there's a lot of room for them to improve their offensive game. One doesn't have to come at the expense of the other. But I do like the fact that these guys to this point have been more committed to defending. They've been in games, thanks in large part to their goaltending, which has been really good.
The Flyers have turned the corner, but there is room for way more offensive production just based on the talent they have up front. They also need to get more shots from their defense. They just don't get enough shots. A lot of teams that score get shots from their defense. Look at the Montreal Canadiens with P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov. They give you more point shots. A lot of teams that are doing really well are getting more contributions from their defense. Point shots create a lot of other offensive opportunities.
In recent years, the Flyers have been at their best when they spend a lot of time around the opposition's net. Right now, they're not playing from the dots down. They need to keep pucks in and get more point shots, which allows them to play from the dots down. They don't have to all be rockets, just wristers in traffic. Even flip it in the corner so you can get extended zone time.
I certainly respect Berube. He played in the League a long time and had a very difficult role, the kind of role I don't take lightly. He put in his time as an assistant coach and his coaching style is definitely different from his playing style. I think that's a good thing. He respects a skill player like Claude Giroux or Vincent Lecavalier. At the same time he respects the gritty role players.
Berube wants his team to commit to playing defense, but they have too many weapons to just play defensively. I don't believe that's going to help them make the Stanley Cup Playoffs or go deep in the playoffs if they only focus on that element. If they really want to turn the corner, they're going to have to find a way to score goals. They may be forced to start doing that Wednesday against a Wings team that is a lot faster.