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.
It's been a season of transition for the Detroit Red Wings with new coach Jeff Blashill and an increased role for some younger players, but for the most part, their goaltending has been solid, which they needed without question if they expect to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 25th straight season.
On the other side, we have the Washington Capitals, who have been clicking on all cylinders all season. Offensively, defensively and on special teams, they rank in the top 10 in goals scored, goals against, power-play percentage and penalty-killing percentage.
The Capitals (11-4-1) visit the Red Wings (9-8-1) at Joe Louis Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: Whether it's been Jimmy Howard or Petr Mrazek in net, Detroit has been comfortable with either guy and knows that each gives them a chance to win every night. It's also helped them a lot to be able to integrate a lot of younger players. For a lot of the younger players getting an opportunity, it makes a big difference when you have the goalies behind you that they have.
For a team like Detroit that's in a transition year with Blashill coming in, Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Dylan Larkin, etc., have been excellent. Larkin plays at warp speed. On one stride, it seems he is gaining 4-5 feet and he is hovering on the ice. He's really explosive like he is shot out of a cannon. He is mature beyond his years. For him to be able to make the transition to Detroit this year is a testament to their scouting staff and to him as a kid and a player as far as how far he is in his development arc. I think him and fellow rookies Max Domi, Artemi Panarin and Nikolaj Ehlers are must-see TV. Larkin leads the team plus-minus (plus-12). That shows his play away from the puck has been excellent. He's not sneaking up on the League, he's coming up with fanfare, so he can't really hide.
A huge plus is Pavel Datsyuk is back after missing the first six weeks of the season because of ankle surgery. He has the ability to be a game breaker on both sides of the puck, which I think is going to help their defensive game too.
Minuses: The challenge for the Red Wings is to get their 'D' to move up more in the rush and attack in the offensive zone. They have Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson and Mike Green, but they don't have all the pieces that they need on defense yet. I think it's still an Achilles heel for them.
Pluses: Something that's not talked about enough is Washington's defensive core and how improved they are. You can make an argument that they are in the top four or five defenses in the League based on balance and based on pairings. John Carlson has become a star. They are so stable with Brooks Orpik, Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen, and those are three guys that they can put in on three different pairs that can stabilize defensively. Knowing how to defend, how to contest passes and shots and be physical. They are very difficult to play against; you have to earn your ice time.
Without question the season that Evgeny Kuznetsov (five goals, 17 points) is having is a plus. Not only is he playing well and making plays and been productive, but he is fun to watch. And T.J. Oshie has been a nice fit. For whatever reason I think Washington is a better fit for him. I didn't think that he would be this much of a difference maker there but he certainly has been one.
Braden Holtby has become a top-five goalie in the League. He had a monster year last year and has shown no signs of slowing down. And of course Alex Ovechkin, the best goal scorer in the game, and Nicklas Backstrom, who hasn't shown any ill effects since returning from injury. He still looks like the same player and is making plays and contributing and can also score goals himself. Ovechkin is a better passer than people recognize and Backstrom is a better goal scorer than people realize.
Minuses: I really think the only minus for Washington is they just haven't gotten to where they wanted to get to yet, which is of course to get to the Stanley Cup Final. They've had tremendous seasons and had Stanley Cup Playoff runs but this is the most balanced version of the Capitals that we have seen without a doubt. There haven't been many minuses with this team that I have seen this year.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Datsyuk's impact. How will his return affect the Red Wings both offensively and defensively?
2. Ovechkin still going for history. After having his past two goals wiped out by coach's challenges, is this the night he final breaks Sergei Fedorov's record for goals by a Russian-born player?
3. Dylan Larkin. I think he has all the tools to be a special player.