The Detroit Red Wings
had lost four straight games after winning the season's first five, and coach Mike Babcock was asked why he thought his team was riding an early roller-coaster.
"When you come off it," he said, "we're all the same."
It was a reference to the parity that's swept through the NHL since the inception of the salary cap, which forces teams to spend money wisely and cultivate homegrown talent through good scouting and drafting. A look back at last season's nail-biting race for playoff positioning in both conferences is all it takes to realize that Babcock might be onto something.
More teams than ever are basically "the same" -- and the resulting intensity for regular-season games has increased because of it. Babcock's Red Wings and Joel Quenneville
's Chicago Blackhawks
know about it well; they are locked in a tight race both for the top spot in the Central Division and for Western Conference playoff positioning.
Detroit is just two points behind the division-leading Blackhawks – who come to Joe Louis Arena for the first time this season on Saturday afternoon (12:30 p.m., NBC, TSN2). If any teams are built "the same," it's these two Original Six rivals.
They're basically neck and neck, show no signs of backing down -- and have taken similar paths to get to this point. Both have spent a little time on the roller-coaster, and there's a feeling the ride is far from over.
Here's a closer look at each heading into Saturday's showdown in Motown.
BLACKHAWKS (26-13-5, 57 points, 1st place Central Division)
You could almost feel it coming inside the Hawks' locker room as Christmas approached. They were on a five-game winning streak and riding high during an impressive stretch that ultimately saw them win 11 of 14 games.
Yet there was a little uneasiness among some of them, as if they knew the rigors of the League's 82-game regular season would eventually catch up to them -- and it did. A concussion to gutsy, playmaking rookie center Marcus Kruger
started it off, followed by a shorter-term ailment that took defenseman Steve Montador
out the lineup for a couple of games.
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followed with an illegal hit against Edmonton's Tom Gilbert
on Jan. 2 that not only got him suspended for seven games but sidelined him for the rest of the season with an injured left knee that will require reconstructive surgery. All that was left was for one of the stars in the "core group" to go down -- and right on cue, Patrick Sharp
left Sunday's game against Detroit with an upper-body injury that's believed to be a hand or wrist issue and will keep him out for three weeks.
The Hawks have won both games since Sharp went down, and Kruger will likely return to the lineup against the Red Wings on Saturday, but the biggest damage happened in a stretch that saw them go winless in five of six games to start the month of January.
That losing skid knocked the Hawks off their pedestal atop the League, Western Conference and Central Division standings and threw them back into the pit with the West's other top teams, all scrapping for playoff position.
All in all, though, you'd have to say the first half of this season has been a huge success for the Hawks – who fixed their biggest issue from a year ago of "leaving meat on the table" late in games. Unlike last season, the Hawks have excelled at earning points in the third period and boast a 18-0-2 record when leading after 40 minutes.
The special teams could stand to improve – as they painfully learned by allowing five power-play goals to the Vancouver Canucks
on Nov. 6 at home and four to the Edmonton Oilers
on Nov. 19 at Rexall Place, both blowout losses. The 12th-ranked power play has also been a little hot and cold.
"I think we can improve special teams," Quenneville said. "We can improve maybe our four-line rotation on a game-to-game basis. Game to game, it just doesn't seem like all four lines are flying or firing every night. We've been good in stretches, but I think that's what we want to nail in the second part of the season is all four lines being consistent and predictable. Our PP and PK, we'd definitely like to move up in those areas, as well."
On the good news side of the ledger, the emergence of speedy 25-year old forward Viktor Stalberg
(13 goals) plus the recent play of rookies Andrew Shaw
and Jimmy Hayes
have proven the Hawks' organizational depth is legit.
In goal, Corey Crawford
(2.83 goals-against average, .903 save percentage) went through a bit of a slump but has turned it back around – while veteran backup Ray Emery
(2.67, .907) has proven to be a nifty signing.
Looking ahead, the Hawks do have some salary-cap space to work with if they want to make a trade or two before the deadline – and the common thought around Chicago is that adding a veteran second-line center plus another solid defenseman is what likely tops GM Stan Bowman's wish list.
RED WINGS (27-15-1, 55 points, 3rd place Central Division)
That aforementioned roller coaster that Babcock was asked about in the first few weeks of the season continued for almost the full first quarter.
They won five to start the season, went winless in six straight, won four in a row, lost a pair and then went on a seven-game winning streak that really vaulted Detroit back up the Western Conference standings -- where they're more familiar.
The topsy-turvy season applies to their home and road splits, as well.
At Joe Louis Arena, the Wings are 16-2-1 and haven't lost since Nov. 3. That's a span of 13 straight wins on home ice, one short of tying the franchise record of 14 in a row set in 1964-65. On the road, it's been a different story entirely – with an ugly 11-13-0 record to show for it.
That might be a byproduct of the effort to give younger players bigger roles this season, but whatever the reason the Wings need to find a solution in the second half of the season.
"I think it's been good at home and too much up and down on the road," Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall
said. "Even within games, there's been parts in the game we played really well and parts where we completely collapsed. (Goalie Jimmy Howard
) has been able to find a way to keep us in those games. We haven't really been outplayed for too many of the games, a lot of times because of Howie."
"Game to game, it just doesn't seem like all four lines are flying or firing every night. We've been good in stretches, but I think that's what we want to nail in the second part of the season is all four lines being consistent and predictable." -- Joel Quenneville on the Hawks recent play
That brings us to the goaltending situation, which has also been up and down. Mostly, Howard's been way up while backup Ty Conklin
has struggled mightily – though beating Chicago 3-2 in overtime last Sunday had to help.
Howard, however, is the story of the first half for Detroit. He leads the League with 25 wins, has a strong 2.04 goals-against average and a solid .924 save percentage in 36 appearances. Howard was rewarded with his first All Star Game invitation on Thursday -- then went out and earned his 100th career win by beating Phoenix 3-2 in a shootout.
Up front the charge is being led by the always-entertaining Pavel Datsyuk
(13 goals and 31 assists), power forward Johan Franzen
(17 goals) and emerging Valtteri Filppula
– whose 15 goals and 21 assists for 36 points are just three points away from his entire stat line from last season (16-23-39).
The Wings are also enjoying a resurgence by forward Jiri Hudler
, whose 12 goals are already three more than he scored all of last season. Defensively, Detroit is getting very good offensive production out of captain Nicklas Lidstrom
, Kronwall, Ian White
and the rest of the D-corps – but it's at the other end of the rink where Detroit has really made a concerted effort.
Along with Howard's development, the Wings made it a point of emphasis to cut down on goals allowed from last season – and thus far the results are promising. GM Ken Holland, in particular, likes what he's seen from that aspect and from his "20-somethings" taking on added responsibilities.
"As I look back on the first half, we're in the hunt with the top teams, we've had a lot of our 20-somethings step up – which helps the team grow— and the other thing is we've developed better depth," Holland said. "All in all, after (43) games if you'd told me this is where we'd be coming out of training camp, we'd be pretty happy."