DETROIT – After an injury-riddled 2013-14 season, the Red Wings head into this week's season opener on Thursday with a clean slate – well, almost clean slate.
The opening-day roster will be missing first line center Pavel Datsyuk, who is expected to miss at least the first two weeks of the season after suffering a separated shoulder in the Wings’ preseason opener in Pittsburgh on Sept. 22.
But as the season gets underway Thursday against the Boston Bruins, it’s important to focus on the players that will be playing and not on the ones that are absent. Among them is goalie Jimmy Howard, who is looking for a bounce-back campaign after an average outing last season. Howard posted an overall record of 21-19-11 last season with a 2.66 goals-against average and .910 save percentage.
“I’m expecting big things,” Howard said of himself. “You know last year was last year and can’t really do anything about that now so just continue to work hard out there and continue to work on things with my goalie coach Jim Bedard and continue to get better.”
Howard has said several times in the last month that he feels the best he’s ever felt. A good sign for the Wings, who will rely on strong play in net while adjusting to changes on special teams. When coach Mike Babcock hired Jim Hiller, the power play – finished 18th in the NHL last season with a 17.7 percent conversion rate – underwent some changes and it will continue to be a point of emphasis after the unit scored eight power-play goals in eight preseason games.
“I think we’ve been doing a lot of good things,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “I think we’ve changed a few things that we’re still working on but been good changes and I think everybody’s excited about it. You know, it’s like any year, it’s a work in process but definitely feels like we’re getting closer and closer.”
The Wings finished fourth in the Atlantic Division – eighth in the Eastern Conference – in 2014 and have made the playoffs for 23 consecutive seasons despite the slew of injuries that affected the roster for much of 2013-14. Now, the team’s clean bill of health thanks to a lengthy offseason bodes well for a strong start.
“The closer you get, you can see even more focused. I think it’s been very good so far just as far as practices and focus on working on these new things,” Kronwall said. “The closer you get, you can definitely tell that the pace is getting higher in practices and more sharpness out there.”
Opening up the first week of the regular season with two home games – where they posted an 18-13-10 record last season – favors the Wings who haven’t lost a home opener at Joe Louis Arena since 2008.
Howard said, “We’re a pretty underrated bunch of guys right now. I don’t think a lot of people are expecting too much out of us this year but we know what we’ve got in this dressing room, we know what we’re capable of and I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”
THURSDAY — vs. BOSTON:
Defense - BOS
Goals: 7 | Assists: 18 | Pts: 25
Shots: 114 | +/-: 22
The team responsible for ending the Wings’ season in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, the Bruins come to Detroit for the first of five meetings between these Atlantic division opponents. They will be on short rest following their home opener on Wednesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers and will be without defenseman Johnny Boychuk, who was traded on Saturday to the New York Islanders in an effort to stay under the salary cap. But the defensive unit is still very much in tact and among the strongest in the NHL with veterans Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg as well as youngsters Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug. The group combined for 11 points (five goals, six assists) in last season’s five-game Eastern Conference quarterfinals series against the Wings.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Hamilton has recorded a point in each of his last five games against the Wings including both preseason matchups. The 21-year-old is entering his third season with the Bruins where he has played in 106 regular-season games recording 12 goals and 41 points. He finished third among Boston defensemen – behind Chara and Krug with 40 points each – last season with seven goals and 25 points to go along with a plus-22 rating. Hamilton’s 19:06 ice time per game is sure to increase after the Boychuk trade, the Bruins will lean heavily on this youngster to step up and play a much larger role in the upcoming season.
SATURDAY — vs. ANAHEIM:
Center - ANA
Goals: 25 | Assists: 18 | Pts: 43
Shots: 239 | +/-: -15
The Ducks finished second in the NHL with 116 points (45-20-8 record) in the 2013-14 season. They finished one point behind the Bruins who captured the President’s Trophy with 117 points. Despite posting a stellar record, coach Bruce Boudreau’s Ducks were bounced out of the postseason by the eventual Stanley Cup winning Los Angeles Kings in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. The Ducks open up the 2014-15 season with four straight road games, the second of which is a stop in Detroit. They are 3-0-2 at Joe Louis Arena over the last two seasons, including two overtime losses in the 2013 Western Conference quarterfinals.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Center Ryan Kesler was part of one of the biggest trades this offseason when the Vancouver Canucks moved him to Anaheim on draft day. He hopes to be the missing piece to a Ducks team that hasn’t been able to advance past the Western Conference semifinals since their Stanley Cup run in 2007. The Detroit-area native recorded 25 goals and 43 points in 77 games last season, which was his 10th season with the Canucks. Ryan Getzlaf (31 goals, 87 points) and Corey Perry (43 goals, 82 points) finished in the top five in scoring in the NHL last season, which may present a challenge for Kesler who is trying to fit in after a change of scenery.