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Notes: Special teams drove first half

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Gustav Nyquist leads the Red Wings with eight power-play goals, which is one off the league lead heading into Friday's schedule. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Detroit Red Wings)

DETROIT – As everyone prepares to close out 2014 with New Year’s Eve celebrations across North America tonight, the Red Wings will look to get back on track following Monday’s lackluster performance in Boston.

“We have to play better,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “The league’s about competition level. We can talk about systems and all those things. When you don’t win your battles on the wall, net front, you don’t win the races, you don’t win any games so that’s the competiveness you need to be successful. Boston was way better in that area than we were. The game before in Ottawa, Ottawa started and were way better than us through two periods. Catch-up hockey is losing hockey and you can’t play like that. You take a lot of pride in your preparation, your competition level if you’re a good organization.”

Certainly, the Red Wings have surpassed most expectations this season, and the play of their special teams – power play and penalty kill units – has been a main contributing force for their first-half success.

It wasn’t all that long ago that questions swirled about this team’s stability as aging players recovered from injuries and a stable of inexperienced youth filled roster holes, leading many hockey prognosticators to condemn the Red Wings to life-support with very little hope of reaching the playoffs this season.

But special teams have been an absolute beacon for this team. Entering Friday, the Red Wings own the top-ranked power play with 34 goals on 140 chances, and their penalty kill ranks second in the league with a 87.7 percent success rate (114-of-130).

“All you have to do is look at the expectations for the Red Wings coming into the year,” Babcock said. “One of the reasons we’re not like that is because of our special teams. Our coaches have done a good job, our players have done a good job, our attention to detail has been good. The other thing about it is we didn’t get off to a good start on the power play, but I think through good teaching and guys buying in and a good plan and execution and having good players, we’ve been able to execute in both of those situations.”

Through the first eight games of the season, the Red Wings’ power play was abysmal, scoring just two goals on 30 man advantages. However, in the last 29 games, Detroit has put together the best power-play unit in the league converting on 32-of-110 chances – that’s a gaudy 29.1 percent clip.

“It’s been big,” said Gustav Nyquist, who leads the Wings with eight power-play goals. “The power play didn’t start off the way we wanted to but I think we’ve been clicking here lately and that’s great. … Special teams is a huge part of the outcome of the game and I think we’ve won a lot of games because of our special teams. Hopefully we can keep that going and also improve a little on our 5 on 5 scoring.”

Nyquist has been another bright spot for the Red Wings. The Swedish forward is tied for the team lead in goals (15) and only three NHL players – Rangers’ Rick Nash, Sharks’ Joe Pavelski and Stars’ Tyler Seguin – has scored more goals this calendar year that Nyquist (38).

“I think Nike has elite hockey sense,” Babcock said. “He’s an everyday guy. He comes to play every day. He’s not large in stature but he can be real heavy on the puck. He’s tenacious on it and he knows where it’s going. That helps him. Obviously you can never have enough scoring in the National Hockey League. If you can have everyone on the team have the ability to score you’re better off. You need to score goals to win. You want to be real good defensively, but you still have to score and he has the ability to do that.”

NYE TRADITION: The Red Wings resume a New Year’s Eve tradition tonight when they host the New Jersey Devils at Joe Louis Arena. The game marks the return of the franchise’s traditional NYE game first played at Olympia Stadium in 1936.

Because of last year’s Winter Classic played on New Year’s Day in Ann Arbor, and the NHL lockout-shortened campaign the previous season, the Red Wings were forced to stray from their annual NYE game.

Tonight will be the first NYE game in Detroit for guys like Nyquist, Stephen Weiss, Tomas Tatar, Danny DeKeyser, Xavier Ouellet, Riley Sheahan, Luke Glendening and Tomas Jurco.

“Absolutely looking forward to playing in this game,” Weiss said. “These games are always fun to be a part of with the crowd that is a little extra energized and you mix that in with a couple of big points on the line it will be a lot of fun.”

During the Ilitch era, the Red Wings have posted a 16-7-0-3 record on New Year’s Eve.

Detroit can reach the 20-win plateau with a victory over New Jersey, making it the 19th time in the past 21 full NHL regular seasons that the Red Wings would close out December with 20 or more wins.

“This is getting close to the halfway point and it’s end of 2014, so you want to go out on a good note,” Glendening said. “You want to play well, especially after the game we just had we need to get back on the right track.”

LONG-ROAD STRETCH: Tonight also marks the Red Wings last home game for the next 2 ½ weeks. Detroit plays its next six games – and 17 of 23 between now and the end of February – away from The Joe.

“It’s a lot of travel, you’re a way from home a lot, but at the same time we had a nice schedule here in December,” Nyquist said. “We were home a lot, feeling good, and playing well at home. I mean, we’ve got to be good on the road as well. We’ve got to find a way there. We’ll just take one game at a time, but obviously we want to be better than we have been a way.”

Xavier Ouellet
Defense  - DET
Goals: 1 | Assists: 1 | Pts: 2
Shots: 18 | +/-: 3
FEELING NEVER GETS OLD: With defenseman Jakub Kindl (elbow) going on short-term injured reserve, the Red Wings recalled Xavier Ouellet from AHL Grand Rapids.

It’s the third time this season that the rookie defenseman has been called up to the big club roster, but it certainly doesn’t get old, he said.

“I’m still very excited every time I get called up,” said Ouellet, who has a goal and two point sin nine games with Detroit this season. “But I’m a little more used to it, that’s for sure, too. This is my 10th game here this year, so I feed good, I feel part of the guys.

It’s easier and easier every time I get called back up.”

Babcock plans to insert the 6-foot-1 defenseman into tonight’s lineup against the Devils.

“He’s a good player. He knows how to play,” Babcock said. “He competes hard. Moves the puck, got good hockey sense. He’s been effective for us.”

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