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Wings dominate Avs in 3-1 victory

by Brian Hedger

DETROIT -- Mike Babcock says that his Detroit Red Wings haven't played their best game yet.

If that's the case, then the rest of the League better brace itself collectively. Babcock's Red Wings don't just have it rolling after 15 games - they're streaking to the top of the Central Division and Western Conference standings.

Colorado found that out the hard way on Saturday night, when Detroit pleased the fans at Joe Louis Arena with an impressive 3-1 victory that pushed them to 23 points, an 11-3-1 record and three straight wins. It came several hours after Babcock was asked if his team had played its best, and the answer was about as direct as the Wings' shooting of late.

"No," he said. "But it's too early to play your best. No team in the League has played their best. It continues to elevate through the year. I think we're getting better. We've got a long way to go, but I think we're going in the right direction."

This game proved Babcock right somewhat, with Detroit dominating the first two periods and the Avs (8-7-1) controlling the bulk of action during the final 20 minutes. Good thing for the Wings that goalie Jimmy Howard was also sharp, making 21 saves and improving to 22-1-3 in his last 26 starts dating back to last season.

"I think we're getting better for sure," Babcock said afterward. "I like the way we've been able to move the puck in the last few games, which is a positive. Our defense is getting better, which is important because we've got to continue to push it."

They'll get a chance to keep pushing on home ice for the next three games.

This one featured several Detroit players extending impressive scoring streaks, while forward Jiri Hudler got his first goal of the season to put the Wings up 2-0 just 30 seconds into the second period and end a drought that was starting to weigh on his mind.

After playing last season in Russia, Hudler returned to the Wings with big expectations - which turned into pressure after not producing much early.

"You don't feel it until you realize it's 14 games into a season and you have zero goals," he said. "But you've just got to stick with hard work and good things are going to happen. You've just got to go for it."

The entire Wings team seems to have that mentality to start the season, including third-line right wing Dan Cleary - one of the League's hottest players of late. Cleary extended his streak of games with a goal by beating Colorado's Peter Budaj with a wicked backhand shot at 5:52 of the second that made it 3-0.

Cleary now has 6 goals and 8 points during those five games.

"I feel good on the ice," he said. "I feel confident, which is the most important thing for any player."

Asked about how much more the Wings have left to improve, Cleary was on the same page as Babcock.

"I think we still have a ways to go, for sure," he said. "Our power play can get a lot better and I think we can (also) not be so stubborn and get the puck in behind the defense a little more often. We're a lot better team when we're skating and cycling."

Todd Bertuzzi added a goal and an assist for Detroit. Captain Nicklas Lidstrom also had an assist to extend his points streak to 11 games. John-Michael Liles scored the lone goal for Colorado during a 5-on-3 power play at 5:28 of the third.

Lidstrom now has 17 points (2 goals) and started the day tied with Pittsburgh's Kris Letang and Atlanta's Dustin Byfuglien for the League lead among defense scoring leaders. Bertuzzi, meanwhile, has tallied 5 points in the last three games.

He's also on the third line now, where he skates opposite Cleary on the left side of center Mike Modano. On Saturday, Bertuzzi put the Wings up 1-0 at 12:58 of the first on a power play, his first goal since Oct. 21 against Calgary.

After taking a pass from Johan Franzen in the offensive zone, he fired a blast from the right circle high to the short side that got over Budaj's trapper and hit the net. He said the Wings' hot start is a direct result of how hard they work in between games.

"We comes to this rink every day and work every single day," said Bertuzzi, who has 3 goals, 14 points and leads the Wings with a plus-11 rating. "We don't just go through the motions. We work really hard. It's 45 minutes on the ice, which doesn't seem like a lot, but it's pretty intense."

The pressure Detroit put on the Colorado in the first 40 minutes was also intense. The Wings outshot Colorado 25-22 overall and 12-6 in the first period, when they also won 65 percent of the faceoffs (13-of-20).

"They're known to people as a talented team but they're a hardworking team, too," Budaj said. "They have a lot of skill, but they have lots of work ethic, too."

It was more of the same early in the second, when Hudler made the Avs pay after coming out of the penalty box to chase down a long pass from Lidstrom. Hudler was stopped on a break, but scored on a rebound bank shot off Budaj's skate shot from behind the net.

Hudler said injured teammate Kris Draper may have given him good luck by telling him on Saturday morning that he thought he'd score against the Avs.

"He's probably going to get a lot of credit for that," Hudler said. "(Getting) the first one is really important. Unfortunately I couldn't get it sooner, but it's behind me now and I've got to keep going."

Babcock would like to see that happen -- he recently questioned Hudler about why he wasn't more consistent, after he bumped him up to the second line. Hudler seems to have gotten the message.

"You want to be on the ice," he said. "That's not going to happen if you don't play the way (Babcock) likes and the way (that helps) the team to win."

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