Once again, we have another great midweek matchup as the Boston Bruins visit Joe Louis Arena to take on the Detroit Red Wings in this week's Wednesday Night Rivalry (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). This game features two Original Six teams that have been among the class of the League for some time now.
The rivalry has an added element this season, with the Bruins and Red Wings competing in the Atlantic Division. Detroit has struggled a little since joining the Eastern Conference this season. But any conversation regarding the East has to begin with the Bruins.
I think Boston is the class of the Eastern Conference. One could argue goaltender Tuukka Rask is the most consistent goalie in the League right now. The Bruins have a great defensive corps with a top offensive line that propels them, as well as a third line consisting of Reilly Smith, Carl Soderberg and Chris Kelly that has been excellent. They're very well-coached and play with a lot of structure. That means they are very strong on the puck and on the boards and very solid with puck possession and one-on-one battles. The main thing with them, especially offensively, is their versatility. Offensively, they can score off the rush, they can score off the cycle and their defensemen can contribute to help create goals.
They're tough and proven and have a winning pedigree. You put all that together and they're a heck of a team. And they could be getting even better now that offseason acquisition Loui Eriksson, who came to Boston in the trade that sent Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars, appears to be coming around. With a goal and two assists Monday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, I think Eriksson is starting to find his stride. He's looking comfortable on that second line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
Seguin has starred this season in Dallas, but Eriksson is a world-class player. Eriksson sees what Tyler Seguin is doing. He's got pride, Eriksson is a guy who has scored 70 points in this League, so he wants to go out there and put his best foot forward.
I also think it took him a while to get acclimatized to Boston -- not just the style of play, but also the life. Boston is a very different city from Dallas. It's very hockey-centric in Beantown and all around Boston, from minor hockey to NCAA and junior hockey. It took some time for him to get adjusted, but he's played exceptionally well these past couple of weeks. Ever since he's come back from injury, he's played well.
I expected more out of Detroit this season. I don't think anybody in Detroit would say anything differently. Playing in the East, I thought they were going to have a field day. Injuries have been an issue for them, but I think there are quite a few guys in Detroit who can and should be bringing more to the table, just based on how skilled they are.
I will say I'm a huge Jimmy Howard fan. Howard has become an All-Star. He just hasn't been able to hit his groove consistently this season. Conversely, backup Jonas Gustavsson has battled his way around the net and has played well to offset Jimmy not playing at that super-elite level. The former Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender is getting rewarded for his strong play, as he'll start Wednesday.
One thing we need to consider is that lot of Detroit's core guys have played a lot of hockey. I'm not only talking about their age on their birth certificate, but also their age in terms of games played -- especially with all the playoff games they have played and the travel they used to endure in the West. Making the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 22 straight seasons can take its toll. It's an incredible accomplishment in all any pro sport, but it also comes at a price. Pavel Datsyuk, for example, has played in 140 playoff games in his career. That's almost two additional full NHL seasons.
The good thing for Detroit, though, is that Grand Rapids won the Calder Cup in the American Hockey League last spring. We've seen some of those guys poke their faces up, like Petr Mrazek, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar. That's a good sign for the Red Wings; it means there's help on the way. But to this point, it's been a little bit of a disappointing year, just based on the expectations there.
I think the biggest challenge for the Red Wings is that they don't have a Drew Doughty or a P.K. Subban or Oliver Ekman-Larson on their blue line. I think Niklas Kronwall is a heck of a player and Jonathan Ericsson is a nice player. Danny DeKeyser has also been really impressive but he's hurt again. They just don't have one of those game-changers. Without having that, it's pretty difficult to make plays and help get the puck out of your zone and get the puck out of trouble. Detroit doesn't have one of those guys right now.
Of course, they had one of the game's all-time greats in Nicklas Lidstrom. They haven't filled that hole since he retired in 2012. Obviously, Nicklas Lidstroms don't come along every day. But at the same time, look at the L.A. Kings. They had Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson and they were able to trade Johnson because they had Slava Voynov. That's a lot of good D.
When you look at a lot of the top teams, including the Boston Bruins, quite often they have one, if not two or three, of those guys on the back end. Detroit has some room to improve in that area.