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Speed is key to Red Wings-Rangers matchup

by Kevin Weekes / NHL.com

Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his plusses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes will also be assisting fans with three must-watch elements of the game.

It's another Original Six matchup, the Detroit Red Wings against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. This is old-time hockey sped up and modernized.

Without question the Red Wings have been the more consistent team of the two so far this season. They have been able to play their game on a more consistent basis than the Rangers.

Health has something to do with that; the Rangers are beat up on the blue line. But overall, individual performances notwithstanding, team-wise the Red Wings have been more consistent. I would imagine Rangers coach Alain Vigneault would say the same thing.

That said, here are my plusses and minuses for the Rangers and Red Wings this season, and three things or players you should watch when you're tuned into NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday:

RANGERS

Plusses: The strength of the Rangers is their speed. They didn't turn the corner last season after a slow start until they recognized they are a fast team and they need to use their speed to their advantage.

It's the same thing this season. They are a fast team. They need to use that speed, maybe more so now than before because of the injuries they have on defense with Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Klein and Dan Boyle out. John Moore is still serving a suspension. That's four of New York's top-six defensemen out of the lineup.

But sometimes it takes a team some time to recognize what its strengths are. I know that might sound basic, but it's like telling a tall goalie to play big. Not every tall goalie plays big. It's the same way with a team. You can have a lot of fast skaters, which the Rangers do, but until they start using the speed on both ends of the puck it won't be a strength.

The Rangers figured that out last season and they were able to get a lot of counters and attack with it. They used their speed Monday and because of that they used the width of the rink a lot offensively. They weren't just going up and down the middle of the ice, or just passing up the middle of the ice.

Look at Martin St. Louis' second goal, the pass from Rick Nash off the right-wing wall. That's a perfect example of using your speed to use the width of the rink.

Nash comes all the way down the wall, St. Louis comes all the way down the far wall as a left-hand shot on his strong side, and he beat Alex Pietrangelo to get there. St. Louis outraced him to the post like a wide receiver and then had to time the pass from Nash, who went down the wall one-on-one with speed against Jay Bouwmeester. Remember, Pietrangelo is an excellent defenseman and so is Bouwmeester, who is a fantastic skater. Nash and St. Louis still took advantage of them.

Speed is their calling card when they're on their game, and it was their calling card when they found their game last season in the regular season. It led them to a deep Stanley Cup Playoff run.

Minuses: They're so depleted on the back end. That's nothing they can help, but it's certainly a concern.

That said, I thought Monday they did well despite the depleted defense against one of the best teams in the Western Conference in the St. Louis Blues.

I know the Blues were minus T.J. Oshie and Paul Stastny, but for the Rangers, without four of their top-six defense, to play the way they played, I think there are a lot of positives that they can take out of their game Monday night. There are a lot of positives.

The worry against the Red Wings, though, is that Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are playing like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

They're not playing like they're injured. There is no drop-off in productivity. They aren't playing lesser roles. They're playing like themselves and that's being complemented by the likes of Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar. Those guys are playing like they can be stars in this League and Datsyuk and Zetterberg and playing like the stars that they are.

That's a concern for the Rangers because the Red Wings are getting production and scoring chances from all those guys.

TALE OF THE TAPE: RED WINGS-CAPITALS
6-3-3 (4th,  Atlantic) 2014-15 Record 5-4-2 (4th, Metropolitan)
2780-2331-815-110 All-Time Record 2611-2517-808-99
261-212-103-2 Head-to-Head Regular-Season Record 214-260-103-1
0-2-2 Streak vs. Opponent 4-0-0
0-2-1 @ New York Home/Road Streak vs. Opponent 3-0-0 vs. Red Wings
11 Stanley Cup Championships 4
48 Hockey Hall of Fame Members 50
Gordie Howe Most Famous Alumnus Mark Messier
9 Hart Trophy Winners 4
62 Postseason Appearances 56
Brendan Shanahan (1996-2006) Best Player in Common Brendan Shanahan (2006-08)

Obviously the Rangers are going to have to overextend the minutes of Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, but the reality is the Red Wings have a lot of guys who can burn you offensively. They just have to do it.

Detroit hasn't burned teams with its offense yet this season, but against a depleted Rangers' defense corps and with the forwards I just mentioned, Vigneault has to be worried about the Red Wings breaking out Wednesday night.

RED WINGS

Plusses: As I said, Zetterberg and Datsyuk are playing the way that they can. With those guys being healthy and playing the way they can, it has not come at the expense of the other young, talented forwards like a Nyquist or Tatar. Instead they complement each other.

Detroit isn't scoring a lot of goals yet, but it is getting chances and that will turn into production.

In addition, I love the way goaltender Jimmy Howard is playing. He's off to a really good start. His footwork looks better. He's crisper in his movements from A to B. He's getting to spots earlier and getting settled on time. His timing on his skates from position to position is better than it was last season.

Minuses: Their "D" corps is a concern for me, particularly against the Rangers speed up front.

That's clearly the matchup. I think it comes down to "D" on forwards in this one, not forwards on forwards. It's the Rangers' speed against the Red Wings "D" and the Red Wings' skill against the Rangers' depleted "D."

Unless Henrik Lundqvist goes and makes 40-something saves and plays ridiculous, I fully expect that those matchups will determine this game.

From a Rangers standpoint, you've got to play to your strengths. You got to the Stanley Cup Final for a reason. You have speed. That's your key.

From the Red Wings' standpoint, they have to keep making plays and it'll come. They have the skill. They have the talent. They have the ability. They need to recognize that the Rangers are down four defensemen and it's time to capitalize. They should be licking their chops.

And I'm talking about that from a defensive perspective too. Their "D" needs to try to take advantage as well, but that comes back to my big concern:

Can the Red Wings' defense handle the speed of the Rangers' forwards? That remains to be seen.

Three things to watch

1. Anthony Duclair

If he's in, I don't see any reason why Duclair won't have a big game by using his feet and his speed to his advantage. That's a big reason why he's there; to play to his strengths, to use his speed to back off opposing forwards and defensemen. I don't see why he couldn't or shouldn't have a big game.

2. Tomas Tatar

I wouldn't be surprised if he has a big game. He is playing better lately, and you can tell he's getting more confident around the net. He's getting chances and trying to make plays.

3. Neutral zone

The team that controls the neutral zone has the better chance of winning simply because of what we've talked about; it means that team will be using speed to its advantage.

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