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Jan. 5: A Look Ahead in Hockeytown

by Craig Peterson / Detroit Red Wings
Henrik Zetterberg and the Red Wings will look to finish the week on a positive note in Washington against the Capitals on Saturday. (Photo by Getty Images)

Coach Mike Babcock pointed the finger at himself first to identify the reason for the Red Wings’ slow starts. With five straight road games on the horizon, the team is just 1-3-0 in the last four away games and will have to make adjustments in order to avoid first period struggles.

“We can’t seem to get started on the road at all,” Babcock said. “So that responsibility lies with me but also with our leadership group and our whole room. It’s not good enough. It’s not good enough to be unprepared to do your job.”

Sluggish starts have been costly. Playing on the road presents a difficult enough challenge in the league and Babcock said it becomes even more tasking when the Wings have to play from behind.

Captain Henrik Zetterberg said difficult stretches are the product of a long season and that it tests good teams. The Wings opened the season with a very favorable home-heavy schedule, so Zetterberg’s team hasn’t had much exposure to the rigors of the road.

“Well we’ve had a lot of home games so we haven’t played that much on the road,” he said. “Also, we know what’s coming up here. We have a tough stretch with a lot of road games and we have to be better if we want to be in the (playoff) race.

“I think it’s more of a challenge for us, I think we’ve been playing OK here at home. We’re looking forward to going on the road and having a good stretch of road games and playing some good road games.”

The Wings were one of the better road teams going 21-15-5 last season. Despite having played 16 games away from Detroit this season, the team has only played in two games outside of the Eastern Time Zone after Saturday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks. With games on consecutive nights against the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, the Wings will embark on a cross-country trip back to the east coast to play the Washington Capitals.

To have success, defenseman Kyle Quincey said the team can’t waste time dwelling on the variables.

“There’s a few things you can control and compete level is one of them,” he said. “Some teams are more skilled than you, some teams have better goaltending on separate nights but you can compete always as hard or harder than each team. That’s one thing we can control.”

Two games away from the halfway point of the season, the Wings maintain several positives to stand on. A strong 49 points in the standings that puts them in third place in the Atlantic Division, a plus-10 goal differential, a league-best 55 percent in faceoff wins in addition to their stellar special teams play that ranks in the top five in both power play and penalty kill.

“I don’t think that there’s any panic in here,” Zetterberg said. “I think we know what we can do. We know we are a good team when we do the right stuff, we’ve just gotta do it.”

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

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

TUESDAY at EDMONTON (8-22-9): The Oilers find themselves in a painfully familiar position holding down last place in the Western Conference with a league-worst 25 points this season prior to Sunday’s game against the New York Islanders. This will be the first of two meetings and the Wings will visit Edmonton amidst a four-game home stand for the Oilers, where the team has gotten six of their eight total wins this season. Edmonton hasn’t defeated the Wings in regulation since a 4-1 decision on Dec. 3, 2009 and holds a 2-10-3 series record since then with both victories decided by shootouts. The Oilers are susceptible to costly starts as the team is winless when the opponent holds a lead after the first period this season and just a 2-17-5 record when the opponent scores first.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins tied a career-high with six goals in a month to close out December and he hopes to carry that momentum into the new year. The Oilers' leader in goals (11) and points (24) has had a strong first half of the season for one of the NHL’s youngest teams. The 21-year-old scored his 50th career goal on Dec. 18 in a 4-3 loss to the San Jose Sharks. Despite being the team leader in points through Sunday, he has been held without a power-play goal on the NHL’s 29th ranked special teams unit. Nugent-Hopkins ranks second among NHL forwards with an average time on ice of 21:27 per game, trailing only Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien.

Jiri Hudler

WEDNESDAY at CALGARY (21-16-3): With 45 points, the Flames are tied for fourth place in the Pacific Division and one point out of playoff contention as the NHL schedule nears the halfway point of the season. The Wings will visit the Pengrowth Saddledome as the Flames near the end of a six-game home stand. Calgary is 3-1-0 in its last four home games and 11-6-2 for the season, much of that credited to strong play while even strength. The Flames’ penalty kill is suspect at best, ranking 26th in the league at 77 percent but the team averages just 8.4 penalty minutes per game, which limits the opponent’s chances to capitalize on Calgary’s weakness. Strong starts will be a recurring trend throughout the Wings’ current road trip and falling behind to the Flames could be fatal as the team is 10-0-0 when leading after two periods.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Former Red Wing Jiri Hudler has exploded for the Flames as the team’s leading scorer through 40 games this season. With two goals and 12 points in the last 11 games, Hudler currently rides his longest point streak of the season at six games. Three seasons removed from his days in Hockeytown, Hudler has totaled 40 goals and 119 points in 156 games for the Flames. He celebrated his 31st birthday on Sunday as the team’s leader in goals (13) and points (37) and has 10 multi-point games this season. With that, his Flames are a perfect 10-0-0 when Hudler produces multiple points in a game.

Alex Ovechkin

SATURDAY at WASHINGTON (19-11-7): The Capitals will play host to the Wings for a second time this season, as Detroit used three third period goals to come out of Washington with a 4-2 victory on Oct. 29. Since then, the Caps have gone 6-4-2 at home, including a 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday in the Winter Classic at Nationals Park. Prior to Sunday’s afternoon game against the Florida Panthers, Washington held steady at fourth place in the Metropolitan Division with 45 points and a fourth ranked power play at 23 percent. Six different players for the Capitals have scored 10 or more goals this season but if the Wings can jump out with a quick goal, it will put the pressure on a Capitals team that is just 1-10-5 when the opponent scores the first goal of the game.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Since Alex Ovechkin entered the NHL in 2005-06, he leads the league in goals (440), points (846), power-play goals (158) and power-play points (332). Prior to Sunday’s game, Ovechkin also had 73 game-winning goals — most in the NHL since entering the league — which puts him one game-winning goal shy of passing Peter Bondra and moving into first place in Capitals' franchise history for most in a career. Ovechkin has five goals and 11 points in the last 11 games including two goals and two assists in the team’s last two games heading into the Capitals’ game against the Panthers. One of the NHL’s worst with a negative-35 rating in 2013-14, Ovechkin has had a significant turn around with a plus-8 through 37 games this season.

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