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Dec. 8: A Look Ahead in Hockeytown

by Craig Peterson / Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings have been getting plenty of offensive production from all four lines lately. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Detroit Red Wings)

DETROIT — Several Red Wings are starting to heat up this month.

Following Saturday’s home win over the New York Rangers, nine different players recorded points in at least three of the previous five games on the schedule, averaging more than four goals per game as a team on their way to a 4-1-0 record since Thanksgiving.

Coach Mike Babcock said the abundance of scoring hails from good competition within the dressing room.

“When you’re playing teams that are real deep you need a number of guys who can finish or you have no chance,” he said. “Obviously, we’re trying to create depth at all positions and (Grand Rapids coach Jeff Blashill) is in the minors and is doing everything he can to help us with that. We’re trying to do that right here and competition for jobs is critical. Any of those internal battles that you can have make your team better.”

Of the nine players streaking for the Wings is Stephen Weiss, who has played eight games this season skating with the third line. In eight games, the former Florida Panther has scored four goals and 10 points — two more points than his combined total from the previous two seasons in which he produced three goals and five assists in 43 games.

The 31-year-old is looking like the kind of player the Wings anticipated when they signed him as a free agent in July 2013. Weiss had scored 20 or more goals in three consecutive seasons totaling 161 points over that span before a series of injuries forced him to miss 87 games since the 2013 lockout-shortened season.

His impact on the lineup has boosted secondary scoring from linemates Riley Sheahan (two goals, five points in last five games) and Tomas Jurco (three assists in last five games) making the trio a viable scoring threat from the third line.

Since being a healthy scratch during the first week of November, Jurco has played with an edge tallying two goals and eight points in a limited role through the last 12 games.

“I just think Jurcs has been good,” Babcock said. “He hardly gets to play, to be honest with you. We hardly put him out there and yet when he’s out there … points per minute he’s probably leading our team. He’s done a real nice job for us. He can really skate. He’s in a position right now where he’s battling to get one of those top nine spots, he wants to play all the time, so he’s doing a good job for himself. But we like what he’s done when he’s had the puck and without the puck. And he’s fast.”

The third line’s production has alleviated some pressure from the Wings’ top forwards like Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen — who have also recorded points in three of the last five games. Having three lines capable of putting the puck in the net is a lethal combination that can wear down opponents.

Amidst all of the recent scoring, forward Tomas Tatar is emerging as an offensive weapon joining Gustav Nyquist as the Wings’ up-and-coming threats. After tying the team’s longest point streak at six games, Tatar followed it up with a five-game point streak that he carried into the Carolina game on Sunday. Trailing only Zetterberg and Datsyuk in points, Tatar has been a constant for the Wings becoming an everyday guy for Babcock through 27 games this season and the team feeds off of that.

“That’s what you want,” Babcock said. “It’s not just on a team, it’s in life, it’s in your company. There’s two options: You can have the Duracell drainer, you sit next to them, they suck the life out of a Duracell battery. Or you can have someone who’s the Energizer bunny and changes everybody else up. We get to choose our attitude every day in life and (Tatar) chooses his good and he energizes the group. So it’s real good to have him.”

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

Phil Kessel
Right Wing  - TOR
Goals: 13 | Assists: 14 | Pts: 27
Shots: 89 | +/-: -3
WEDNESDAY vs. TORONTO (14-9-3): Winners of three of their last four games, the Maple Leafs will come to Detroit on the second day of a back-to-back stretch of games. Toronto is 3-1-1 in games on short rest this season and nine different scorers have record 13 goals in their last three games. Goal scoring hasn’t been a problem for the Leafs who are tied for the second-most goals in the NHL with 89 – four more than the Wings. Striking early is key against the Leafs who are one of only two teams in the league that are undefeated when scoring the first goal with an 11-0-0 record. And forget about comebacks, with a record of 10-0-0 when holding onto a lead after two periods, the Leafs know how to close out games.

PLAYER TO WATCH: With plenty of offensive threats to be mindful of, it may be best to focus on the front man. The Leafs have seven players with 15 or more points and forward Phil Kessel leads the way with 13 goals and 27 points. He is the only player to finish in the top 10 in NHL scoring during each of the past three seasons and is currently tied for 10th with Rick Nash. In his ninth NHL season, Kessel also holds the fifth longest active games played streak having skated in 390 consecutive games. Despite his league-wide success, Kessel has been held scoreless against the Wings in three games this season and hasn’t recorded a point against them since the Winter Classic game last season.

Aaron Ekblad
Defense  - FLA
Goals: 4 | Assists: 13 | Pts: 17
Shots: 50 | +/-: 6
FRIDAY vs. FLORIDA (11-7-7): The Panthers will be well-rested this time around when they visit Detroit for the second time in 10 days. After visiting on short rest last week, the Panthers will have four days between games before they come to Hockeytown for the final time this season. It will be the first of a back-to-back stretch for the Cats and will play five of their next six games on the road. The Panthers are a tough team to play against — as the Wings found out — with 18 of their 25 games being decided by one goal including their 4-3 win at Joe Louis Arena last week. In their last eight games, the Panthers have killed off 20-of-21 penalties with the only blemish being surrendered to Tatar last Tuesday.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad has matched his longest point streak of the season and is coming off of the highest single-game point total of his young career. With points in each of the Panthers’ four previous games — including the game-winning goal against the Wings — Eklad recorded an assist on each of the team’s goals in a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday. At six-feet, six-inches, Ekblad was the first overall selection in the 2014 NHL draft and has had an immediate impact on the league, leading the Panthers with 17 points and logging more than 21 minutes per game.

Tyler Bozak
Center  - TOR
Goals: 11 | Assists: 13 | Pts: 24
Shots: 57 | +/-: -1
SATURDAY at TORONTO (14-9-3): Since being embarrassed by the Nashville Predators in a 9-2 loss on home ice, the Leafs have picked up 11 of a possible 14 points in a seven game stretch. It will be the first of three straight home games where they have won five of their last six in the Air Canada Centre. The Leafs stiffen up defensively on home ice, leading the league in blocked shots (285) and takeaways (215) versus their road games where they post 126 and 64 respectively. The Leafs have also scored more shorthanded goals than any other team in the NHL with six including one by Tyler Bozak in their last meeting with the Wings, a 4-1 victory in Toronto.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Sure enough, Bozak will be one to keep an eye on having recorded a point in six of the team’s last seven games with five goals and nine points. Bozak has recorded two game-winning goals in that span and trails only Kessel in points on the team. Bozak’s last game against the Wings was the first multi-goal game of his career and he has a knack for playing at home with 18 of his 24 points this season coming at Air Canada Centre. He’ll look to continue his success against the Wings in their fourth meeting of the season.

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