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Dec. 1: A Look Ahead in Hockeytown

by Craig Peterson / Detroit Red Wings
Tomas Tatar celebrates his game-winning goal at Columbus on Nov. 18. The Red Wings' forward finished the month with seven goals, five assists and a plus-4 rating. (Photo by Getty Images)

DETROIT — One point out of first place in the Atlantic Division, a top 10 power play, a top 10 penalty kill and a four-game winning streak heading into December.

Looks like a pretty strong resume with more than one-quarter of the schedule in the books.

Finishing with an 8-3-3 record in the month of November including a four-game win streak after Sunday’s 5-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks has put the Red Wings in a strong position moving forward. Coach Mike Babcock kept it simple after the game.

“Well we won,” he said. “I like that the best.”

He also might like this. Since the 2005-06 season, NHL teams in postseason position at the end of November have gone on to make the Stanley Cup playoffs 77.3 percent of the time, according to STATS.

While playoffs are still quite some time away and there is plenty of hockey left to play, the Wings are in a much stronger position than they were a year ago when they were 13-7-7 heading into December. This year, the Wings have recorded more wins (14) in fewer games (24). While that may not seem like a massive improvement, looking at the big picture will put it into perspective as the Wings are on pace for 112 points — nine more points than they finished with last season and five playoff spots higher.

The Wings have reeled off four consecutive wins giving them their longest streak of the season thus far. Much of that success has to do with the power play, which has caught fire during the last month.

The power-play unit went 17-for-58 (29.3 percent) through 14 games in November — including seven power-play goals during the current winning streak — more than doubling their success rate from the previous month of 12.8 percent.

“You have Sheahan, Tatar, Nyquist, Weiss and Franzen,” Babcock said. “We have more players than we’ve had probably since ’09 that can score. It didn’t look like it early but it does now. What’s happening now is that because we score more we give up more. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.”

Not to mention Henrik Zetterberg — the team leader with 23 points — and Pavel Datsyuk — has at least one point in nine of 13 games played — are two of the more dangerous scorers on the roster.

While the power play has improved tremendously, Babcock mentioned that it came at a price as the penalty kill has lost some ground.

The PK unit was the most efficient in the NHL after the month of October but slipped from 94.1 percent to 86.0 percent, which now ranks fourth in the league. It’s tough to pick apart a unit that is among the top five in efficiency but the Wings have given up power-play goals in six of their last 10 games.

With three games in seven days against opponents that rank in the bottom half of the NHL in points, the Wings will have an opportunity to extend their winning streak and at the very least stockpile some more points as well.

With that, here’s a look ahead to this week in Hockeytown:

Nick Bjugstad
NICK BJUGSTAD
Center  - FLA
Goals: 8 | Assists: 4 | Pts: 12
Shots: 58 | +/-: 4
TUESDAY vs. FLORIDA (9-6-6): The Panthers will conclude just their second set of back-to-back games this season when they visit Detroit on Tuesday following a meeting on Monday with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Florida picked up three of a possible four points in their previous back-to-back stretch of games in mid-October, losing to the Washington Capitals 2-1 in a shootout on the second night. The Panthers have made a habit out of close games with 14 of their 21 games being decided by one goal. They are 7-1-6 in those games despite the lack of a dominant scorer (Nick Bjugstad and Jussi Jokinen are tied for a team-leading 12 points) and average special teams (22nd ranked power play and 17th ranked penalty kill) the Panthers still manage to keep games close and give opponents fits, winning their last two one-goal games over Ottawa and Carolina.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Nick Bjugstad scored the lone goal for the Panthers in Wednesday night’s 1-0 win over the Hurricanes. The six-feet, six-inch forward scored just 21 seconds into the first period, making it the fastest opening goal scored by a Panther this season. The prior season-high was 24 seconds also set by Bjugstad on Nov. 20 against the San Jose Sharks. The goal earned Bjugstad his ninth point in six games before being held scoreless in Florida’s 3-2 win over the Senators on Friday. Bjugstad leads the Panthers with eight goals and 58 shots and ranks second among Panthers forwards in with 16:55 time on ice per game.

Jamie Benn
JAMIE BENN
Left Wing  - DAL
Goals: 8 | Assists: 15 | Pts: 23
Shots: 76 | +/-: 5
THURSDAY vs. DALLAS (9-10-5): The Stars finished a mere 5-8-1 in the month of November including losses in five of their last eight games down the stretch. A new month brings new beginnings for Dallas as they have yet to play an Atlantic Division opponent this season. All three of their games this week — including the Wings — will be against teams from the division that claims five of a possible eight Eastern Conference playoff spots. Forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin could be one of the best combinations in the NHL but a lack of supporting cast has hindered the team’s success this season. Benn and Seguin combine for more than one-third of all Dallas goals scored this season while the Stars have given up 3.46 goals per game, second-most among NHL teams.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Stars captain Jamie Benn was named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week last week and is riding a six-game point streak in which Benn scored three goals and 10 points. It’s not the first time Benn has gone streaking this season, having recorded a seven-game point streak in October scoring five goals and 11 points. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, Benn is sixth in the NHL with 102 points in 105 games while teammate Tyler Seguin is second on that list with 115 points in 104 games. Benn currently leads the team with 21 takeaways this season while ranking second on the team with 38 hits.

Derek Stepan
DEREK STEPAN
Center  - NYR
Goals: 2 | Assists: 10 | Pts: 12
Shots: 29 | +/-: 4
SATURDAY vs. NEW YORK RANGERS (11-8-4): The Rangers moved into third place in the Metropolitan Division after sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers in a two-game, home-and-home series over the holiday weekend. In Friday’s 3-0 win, the Rangers recorded both a power-play goal and a shorthanded goal in the same game for the seventh time since the start of the 2013-14 season. Consecutive wins closed out the month of November for the Rangers with a 6-4-4 record including a 4-3 win in overtime over the Wings. However, New York is just 3-4-1 this season in games away from Madison Square Garden and will come to Detroit for the first time since Oct. 26, 2013. The Rangers will come in with four days of rest following a contest with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Center Derek Stepan tied a single-game career-high with three assists in Friday’s 3-0 win over the Flyers. Since making his season debut on Nov. 8, Stepan has recorded a point in nine of 11 games and enters the week with a six-game point streak. That streak is the longest any Ranger has registered during the season thus far. The Minnesota native appeared in 82 regular season games for the Rangers last season but missed the first 12 games of 2014-15 with a fractured fibula. Since returning to the lineup, Stepan is tied for second on the team with 10 assists and is tied for the team lead with 12 points.

Justin Faulk
JUSTIN FAULK
Defense  - CAR
Goals: 3 | Assists: 12 | Pts: 15
Shots: 65 | +/-: -11
SUNDAY at CAROLINA (7-13-3): The Hurricanes have got to be content with a 7-7-1 record in the month of November and a weekend split with the Metropolitan Division leading Pittsburgh Penguins. Carolina can compete and much like the Panthers, keep games close and interesting. Four of their last five games have been decided by one goal, the only problem for the Canes is their record is 0-4-0 in those contests. Despite not having anything to show for their efforts in the win column, special teams have improved on both ends. The power play scored two goals in each of their games against Pittsburgh over the weekend and the penalty kill has eliminated 18 of their last 19 shorthanded opportunities — the Canes’ best stretch of the season.

PLAYER TO WATCH:
Defenseman Justin Faulk is out to the strongest start of his early career with three goals and 15 points in 23 games. The U.S. Olympian picked up three points in their weekend series with the Penguins, two of which came on the man advantage. At 22-years-old, Faulk is tied for the team lead in points and is tied for 11th among NHL defensemen in the same category. He is also one of only two defensemen in the league to tally a shorthanded goal, which came back on Nov. 4, and proved to be the game-winner in a 4-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Hurricanes have leaned heavily on the young defenseman’s assets as he leads the club in time on ice per game (23:53) and takeaways (18).

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