DETROIT — Time for warming up has ended, as a challenging start to a new season will force the Red Wings to hit the ground running.
Their first two games of the season were against the top two teams from last season’s regular season with the Boston Bruins and Anaheim Ducks. Follow that up with three games against Atlantic Division opponents this week and it becomes a very challenging and valuable slate of games. But playing against high-caliber opponents is just the way defenseman Niklas Kronwall wants it.
“I’d rather do it that way, to be honest with you. I think you want to play the best teams,” Kronwall said. “You want to gage yourself, see where you’re at. I thought our structure worked pretty well. Howie played great. I thought we skated pretty good.”
During the early stages of the season, it is important for the Wings to make their mark and establish themselves in the league quickly.
“I think just being hard to play against. Play our positions well and make it hard on the other team. I think that’s the main focus in the beginning,” forward Johan Franzen said. “Make sure not to give anything to the other team. We want it to be hard for them to score on us.”
Through the first two games, the Wings – particularly goalie Jimmy Howard – have been very hard to score on. Howard has posted a 2.00 goals-against average and .907 save percentage, in addition to impressive performances during his three preseason games. Howard stopped 87 of 92 shots faced, giving up just five goals in preseason action.
If the Wings can string together big wins early, it will put them in a comfortable position as the season wears on. The injury bug bites every year and no team is exempt, so stockpiling victories now with a healthy squad – knock on wood – is important.
“Obviously, we want to play well (this week) and start kicking at the board early because last year I don’t think we did that and we kind of found (ourselves) trying to find a playoff spot late,” defenseman Brendan Smith said. “This year, I think our goal is to make sure that we get to the top and then stay there.”
The home-and-home weekend series with the Maple Leafs is a special one for Smith. A Toronto-native, he grew up as a fan of the Original Six franchise and will have plenty of family present during the weekend match-up.
“Growing up being a Toronto fan, it’s cool to play them as a back-to-back, home-away thing,” he said. “It’ll be fun to have my family in town to watch both games. It’s a cool experience, I mean I remember watching Toronto growing up all the time, they kind of frustrated me a little bit but at the same time they were my team.”
It will be all business once puck drop nears and Smith has had an impressive start to the season thus far. Coach Mike Babcock has raved about Smith’s development and said him and Kronwall were the two best defensemen in training camp. An improved Smith bodes well for the Wings’ back-end as the season moves forward.
“I think we’ve got great balance, the more experience you get the smarter you can be out there and use that to your advantage,” Kronwall said. “I think over the last few years, we’ve had pretty much the same group so we know each other pretty well. Everybody has pretty much played with everybody.”
WEDNESDAY — vs. BOSTON (1-2-0):
Center - BOS
Goals: 1 | Assists: 1 | Pts: 2
Shots: 7 | +/-: E
The Bruins offense is off to a slow start after the first week of the regular season. The team has combined for just three goals in three games and was shutout by the Washington Capitals on Saturday. Winning their first game of the season and dropping their next two, the Bruins are in jeopardy of losing three consecutive regular-season games, a feat that didn’t happened to the Bruins last season and hasn’t occurred since April 2013 when they lost four straight. They have also lost eight of the last nine regular-season meetings with the Wings but will hope to right the ship in a nationally televised game.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Center Patrice Bergeron is tied for the team lead in points after the first week of the season with one goal and one assist through three games. His goal came against the Wings and was the Bruins lone goal in the 2-1 loss at Joe Louis Arena last Thursday. With the loss of David Krejci, the offensive responsibility will fall heavily on Bergeron as Boston’s top centerman. He’s no stranger to scoring though, as Bergeron was a 30-goal scorer just a season ago and has been one of the top point producers for the Bruins for five consecutive years.
FRIDAY — at TORONTO (1-1-1):
Left Wing - TOR
Goals: 1 | Assists: 1 | Pts: 2
Shots: 9 | +/-: -1
The first meeting between these Original Six teams from the Atlantic Division. They are scheduled to play five times before January. The Leafs went 1-2-1 in the series last season and haven’t beaten the Wings in Toronto since Jan. 7, 2012. With a home record of 24-15-1 (.585 win-percentage) finishing 15th in the league, the Leafs will want to find some confidence after losing their first two home games of the season at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins.
PLAYER TO WATCH: The Maple Leafs’ second line forward Joffrey Lupul has recorded a point in each of their first two home games this season. Lupul has found recent success playing in the confines of Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. Since the lockout in 2013, he has scored 25 goals and 41 points at home versus just 9 goals and 22 points on the road. His unique ability to generate production at home is something the Wings must be able to account for as Lupul recorded four points in four games against the Wings last season.
SATURDAY — vs. TORONTO (1-1-1):
Right Wing - TOR
Goals: -1| Assists: 2 | Pts: 3
Shots: 6 | +/-: -3
A home-and-home weekend series against the Wings presents an opportunity to steal some points back after winning just one of their first three regular-season games. The all-time, regular-season record between these two franchises is deadlocked at 278-278-93 and the Leafs will look to utilize their scoring depth. After three games, 16 different players have recorded at least one point through the Leafs’ first three games of the season. Having so many offensive weapons, it is only a matter of time before this team starts stringing together wins.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Forward Phil Kessel has been one constant for the Leafs who have made it to the playoffs just once in the last 10 seasons. After being traded to Toronto from the Bruins in 2009, Kessel has led the Leafs in scoring each of his five years with the club. While he was shut out in their first two games, Kessel got hot against the New York Rangers recording one goal and two assists in their 6-3 win on Sunday. Kessel has recorded four goals and nine points in 10 career regular-season games against the Wings.