ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Red Wings have another wild Western Conference week coming up. With four games in the next seven days – including two meetings with their Central Division rivals from Nashville – there are eight big points available for the Wings to pick like low-hanging fruit.
But points won’t necessarily be easy to reach for the Red Wings who continue to battle an inconceivable number of absences from the lineup this season, which has forced coach Mike Babcock to deploy different line combinations and defensive pairings on an almost nightly basis.
Through Sunday, the Red Wings had played six true rookies, not counting Swiss import Damien Brunner, who isn’t eligible for the Calder Trophy because his birthdate came after the Sept. 15 cutline. Only the Ottawa Senators (eight) have played more rookies.
With the exception of defenseman Brendan Smith, who was expected to be on Detroit’s roster all along, injuries have required the call ups of guys like Tomas Tatar, Joakim Andersson, Petr Mrazek, Gustav Nyquist and Brian Lashoff. But with these calls ups bring opportunity.
“It’s just because of injuries, but who cares?” Babcock said, on Sunday morning. “It’s interesting I was listening to some broadcaster talk about hockey and he was basically saying, ‘They don’t know who’s playing.’ When we put on our sweaters we have to find a way to win. It doesn’t matter who’s in, who’s out, who’s at home. It’s the NHL. Let’s play.”
So, with that, here’s a look ahead to this week in Hockeytown:
TUESDAY – at NASHVILLE PREDATORS (7-3-5):
Center - NSH
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 10
SOG: 20 | +/-: 3
After an auspicious start, the Predators have earned points in seven of their last eight games, including three straight. However, the Red Wings might be catching them at the right time – on the second night of back-to-back games. Nashville is 1-1-2 in back-to-backs this season. … Pekka Rinne is once again on top of his game, leading the league with three shutouts along with a 1.63 goals-against average (which is third best in the NHL) and a .936 save percentage (fifth in the league). The Predators need Renne to remain strong this season, especially since they’re the league’s lowest scoring team, potting under two goals a game. But the Preds give Renne a lot of help in front, blocking more than 16 shots per game behind defensemen Scott Hannan and Kevin Klein, who have registered 34 and 30 blocks, respectively.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Known more as a fringe player, center Colin Wilson is off to an outstanding season – by his standards. The Connecticut native has never produced more than 35 points in any of his previous three NHL seasons. But already this year, Wilson has four goals and 10 points to lead Nashville in both categories. Though he started slow (one point in seven games) the 23-year-old has collected points in six of the last eight games, including the lone tally in a 1-0 win over San Jose last Tuesday.
THURSDAY – vs. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS (4-9-2):
Defense - CBJ
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 10
SOG: 21 | +/-: -5
This is the third of five games between these Central Division rivals, but the first at Joe Louis Arena. The Red Wings are 1-1-0 this year against the Jackets. Detroit rebounded in a 4-3 shoot-out win on Jan. 21, but lost a 4-2 decision two weeks later at Nationwide Arena. Since beating the Wings on Feb. 2, the Blue Jackets have been on a tail-spin, going 1-4-1 in their last five games. Columbus is also 1-5-0 away from home, which is the worst in the league. Like the Wings, Columbus has also battled the injury bug. Currently, center Brandon Dubinsky (lower body) is out, while center Artem Anisimov (lower body) and right wing Cam Atkinson (lower body) are both questionable.
PLAYER TO WATCH: A solid all-around veteran defenseman, Fedor Tyutin leads the Blue Jackets in points with 10, including a team-high nine assists. In two games against the Red Wings this season, he has three assists, which is more than a quarter of his career points in nine NHL seasons against Detroit. The 6-foot-2 Russian eats up more than 23 minutes of ice-time per game, including 3:42 of penalty-kill time and 2:59 on the power play, which is less than he’s used to logging since the addition of Jack Johnson on the back-end, and the return of Detroit native James Wisniewski, who is healthy again, and back in the lineup after the birth of his daughter on Saturday.
SATURDAY – vs. NASHVILLE PREDATORS (7-3-5):
Center - NSH
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 3
SOG: 19 | +/-: 0
The Predators’ goaltending tandem of Pekka Renne and Chris Mason leads the league with a combined 1.60 GAA. Granted, the majority of the games have been logged by Renne. But Mason, who is back in Nashville after spending the last four seasons between St. Louis, Atlanta and Winnipeg, has allowed just three goals in two games. … The Predators’ power play isn’t as strong on the road (2-for-28) as it is at home (5-for-20). … Grosse Pointe native David Legwand, the first-ever draft pick of the Predators, has three goals and six points, including a power-play goal. In 13 seasons, the 6-2 center has produced 40 points against the Wings – that’s his third-highest career total, behind Chicago (55) and Columbus (43).
PLAYER TO WATCH: Center Paul Guastad hasn’t been much of an offensive threat the past three seasons. But in Nashville, he’s more of a defensive contributor and is excellent on the draw. Entering the week, the North Dakota native had the third-most face-off wins in the Western Conference, winning more than 62 percent of his draws in the circle. He has also taken over the net-front roll for the injured Patric Honqvist. Gaustad admits he’s not all that great at tipping shots, but his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame makes him difficult for opposing goalies to see around.
SUNDAY vs. VANCOUVER CANUCKS (8-3-2):
Goalie - VAN
GAA: 1.45 | SVP: 0.943
For the last three seasons, offense has led the way for the Canucks, who’ve finished among the top five teams each year. But this year, without top forwards Ryan Kesler and David Booth – who happen to be Detroit area natives – the Canucks have shifted gears and are getting on the winning track through defense. Behind veteran goalie Roberto Luongo, who seemingly has resurrected his career, Vancouver has allowed the second-fewest goals (27) in the league. … The Canucks are led by four players who have four or more goals – Zack Kassian (5), Alexandre Burrows (4), Mason Raymond (4) and Daniel Sedin (4) – this season. Meanwhile, center Henrik Sedin has a team-high 10 assists and a plus-9 rating.
PLAYER TO WATCH: For all of the talk that Luongo was on the fast track out of Vancouver, man, has the tide ever turned. Luongo and his command of the butterfly style don’t appear to be going anywhere soon. The 33-year-old Montreal native leads the NHL with a stingy 1.45 goals-against average and is second-best with a .943 save percentage. Luongo has won four straight games while allowing just four goals in those contests. It certainly seems like the Canucks have a goaltending controversy brewing, because interestingly enough, Cory Schneider has given up just four goals in his four wins this season. However, it’s the 13 goals that he’s allowed in losses to Dallas, San Jose and Anaheim that has given Luongo new life in Vancouver. At least for now.
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose