DETROIT – Apparently, absence does make the heart grow fonder, especially for the Red Wings who don’t have a problem getting geared up to play the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I still remember playing in that series, when we went to Game 7 and lost in overtime, that’s still tough on us,” said Brendan Smith, referring to the 2013 Western Conference quarterfinals. “We want to beat them every time we play them so that gives us a little extra drive. There’s a rivalry from that, but there’s always been one from the Original Six that’s always brewed. I feel it’s gotten stronger in the last few years.”
Now in the Eastern Conference for their second season, the Red Wings don’t get to see as much of the Blackhawks as they did when both teams were Central Division rivals in the Western Conference.
The two Original Six clubs play each other just twice each season now, and Friday marks the Blackhawks’ lone visit to Joe Louis Arena in the regular season. The Wings and Blackhawks will also meet Feb. 18 at Chicago’s United Center.
Last season, the two clubs slip their season series, with the Red Wings winning a thriller in a shootout, while losing in regulation later in the year in Chicago.
“I miss playing them more,” Wings goalie Jimmy Howard said. “When we were in the West and playing them you knew it was going to be a battle, it was going to be a fun atmosphere, and the game was going to be up-tempo. There were going to be saves and chances galore, great goal scoring. So It’s always fun when you get to play Chicago.”
Detroit and Chicago head into Friday’s game with 19 points each and currently reside in seventh place in its respective conference standings. A key for the Red Wings will be seeing how well their red-hot power play – they’ve scored two goals in each of the past three games – can do against the Blackhawks’ penalty kill, which is tops in the league with a 91.7 percent success rate.
“It’s a challenge every night no matter who you’re playing, so we’re going to have to do the same thing and work real hard at it and be detailed in our approach and attack,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “The more we attack the better chance we have to be successful. Nothing’s going to change there.”
Up front, the Blackhawks have the ability to come in waves with forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brad Richards, and then the offensive contributions of defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
Each team has registered 11 power-play goals this season.
“They’re a great team, obviously, we have to stay out of the box because their power play can be pretty lethal,” said Howard, who sports a 4-8-5 career record against Chicago. “They like to play that puck-possession game and we’re just gonna have to make them come a full 200 feet.”
The Red Wings enter Friday’s game following four days off. While the rest has certainly been beneficial, especially for players like Pavel Datsyuk, who hopes to return against the Blackhawks following a sore groin, they must avoid another slow start – something that has plagued this team through the first month of the season.
“The thing we've been struggling with is coming out slow and having to come from behind,” center Riley Sheahan said. “We've gotta start right from the get-go. Obviously they've got some extremely skilled players so we've got to keep up with them and be confident.
“It was obviously nice having some days off to rest and relax but once the puck drops we gotta be ready to play. That's gonna be tough but just gotta focus a little more during warm-ups and get prepared.”
Gustav Nyquist, the Red Wings leading scorer with eight goals in 15 games, said matchups like Friday’s game is like a chess match.
“Fun team to play against, good speed, a lot of skilled players,” he said. “They want to play an offensive type of hockey. They move the puck well and their whole team skates real well, so it’s going to be a good match-up for us, a good measuring stick. We think we’re a fast team this year, too, so it’s going to be fun with two teams with a lot of speed.”
LONG LAY OFF: Four days off in a row can be either a blessing or a curse in the NHL. Babcock said he hopes his team avoids any problems when the puck drops Friday against Chicago.
“I’d like to tell you I’m going to line up the moon and the stars and make sure that stuff doesn’t happen but that’s not reality,” Babcock said. “We’re going to do everything we can. We had a good week of practice, we did a lot of teaching, trying to improve our game. Sometimes the benefits don’t show right away but usually they do over time, so I’m not as concerned as I might be. Play a real good Chicago team. I was very impressed with the prescout, Chicago vs. Tampa. They’re a high-end team. It should be fun.”