Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The St. Louis Blues and Detroit Red Wings are each in a position unfamiliar to them. The Blues, who have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the past four seasons, are clinging to a postseason berth in the Western Conference. The Red Wings, who have made the playoffs for 25 straight seasons, are in last place in the Eastern Conference.
The teams also are heading in opposite directions: St. Louis has won four straight games and five of six, and Detroit has lost four straight.
With points critical to each team, I expect a classic matchup between these former Norris/Central Division rivals when the Blues (29-22-5) visit the Red Wings (22-24-10) at Joe Louis Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: St. Louis has obviously played well since Mike Yeo replaced Ken Hitchcock as coach on Feb. 1. Perhaps the move got some guys' attention. Patrik Berglund is coming off of a hat trick in a 4-2 win at the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday. He leaves you wanting more because of his skill and size (6-foot-4, 223 pounds), but during this stretch, he is using those two things to his advantage and is playing in the middle of the ice and the offensive zone more.
Also, Vladimir Tarasenko (26 goals, 53 points) continues to be one of the most dominant players in the League, The Blues haven't been as sloppy defensively as they had been earlier in the season and are attacking offensively.
Jake Allen and Carter Hutton have been great lately. Hutton has two shutouts in his past three starts. Allen is 4-1-0 and was named the NHL's Third Star of the Week after going 3-0-0 with a 1.00 goals-against average, .967 save percentage and one shutout. They're playing well but also getting plenty of help defensively.
Video: STL@TOR: Tarasenko shows off hands, nets OT winner
Minuses: St. Louis has gone 5-1-0 under Yeo and outscored its opponents 20-8, but how long will the Blues be able to sustain that pace? They still have plenty of tough games left against Central Division opponents. Hitchcock was put in a bad spot and the players have to dig their way out of it. It falls on the team collectively, and while this stretch is nice, can they keep it up? The Blues got off to a great start this season, but the bottom fell out shortly after the 2017 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. Let's see how things go here in the next little bit.
Paul Stastny, who was starting to find his scoring touch with three goals and three assists in his past five games, was placed on injured reserve Tuesday. He not only plays in all situations, but is a great faceoff man and someone the Blues will miss as long as he's out.
Video: STL@TOR: Stastny gets shaken up, leaves game in 2nd
Pluses: Obviously the passing of owner Mike Ilitch last week is on the minds of the entire organization because of all he did for the team, the community and the city of Detroit. He'll be honored before the game, the first at home for the Red Wings since his death on Friday. I'd expect them to really give it some extra effort to try and win this one for him.
Henrik Zetterberg is having a nice bounce-back season. He has four goals and eight points in his past seven games and leads Detroit in scoring with 41 points in 56 games. Last season, the Red Wings' captain had 50 points in 82 games. He's already matched his goal total (13) from 2015-16. Thomas Vanek has also played well. He was signed this offseason and is second on the team in scoring (14 goals, 36 points).
Video: DET@MIN: Zetterberg bats airborne puck into the twine
Lastly is the progression of the young guys, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou. Mantha has 13 goals and 29 points and Athanasiou has 14 goals. Athanasiou can fly. Mantha can skate but Blashill said he needs to keep his feet moving, since sometimes he has a tendency to stop or slow down because he's a shooter, though it's different being a shooter at the lower levels than at the NHL. But he's made some nice progression lately.
Minuses: Outside of Mike Green (10 goals, 26 points), the Red Wings are struggling to get offense from their defense. The other defenseman have combined for 11 goals, and the second-highest point total on the team is 10 points by Xavier Ouellet. That's putting a lot of pressure on one guy to do it all.
Detroit is in a tough spot right now. The Red Wings are close enough to make a playoff push even though they're in last place in the conference, but they're not low enough in the standings to be a lottery team and get a top pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. That makes the decision of what to do at the NHL Trade Deadline on March 1 more difficult. Are they buyers or sellers? Or do they stand pat?
The Red Wings also have struggled at home this season: Detroit is 11-12-5 at Joe Louis Arena and is 1-2-2 in its past five home games.
Video: BOS@DET: Ouellet rifles one through screen and in
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. The speed of St. Louis: The Blues have been playing a faster game lately.
2. Can Allen and Hutton keep up the recent run of success in goal: Improved goaltending has made a big difference for the Blues.
3. Can Athanasiou and Mantha continue to carry the Red Wings offensively: Detroit needs its two talented young players to step up.