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Second Half of Season Starts this Week

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings

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Let the Western Conference playoffs race begin!

It took nearly half of the season for the Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks to finally meet head-to-head for the first time on the 2011-12 calendar.

But as the second half of the season gets underway Tuesday in New York, it’s easy for the Wings to overlook the Islanders – Tuesday’s opponent – and look ahead to the remaining four Central Division clashes with the Blackhawks, who pay a visit to Joe Louis Arena this Saturday afternoon.

It was only a few months ago that some pundits heaped piles of dirt on the grave when the Wings muddled through a 0-5-1 dead stretch. Yet with their stunning overtime comeback win Sunday at United Center, the Wings shook the dirt off and jumped into virtual three-way first-place tie with Chicago and St. Louis for the division lead.

Since losing a sixth straight on Nov. 3, Detroit has had an incredible resurgence, posting a 21-9-0 mark and ascending to the second-best record in the Western Conference, just two-points behind front-running Vancouver.

For the sixth time in the Mike Babcock era, the Wings have compiled 53-points, or more, in the first half of a season. The only time the Wings didn’t meet that first-half points standard was 2009-10 – the only time they finished out of first-place in the division in 11 seasons. 

The Wings have rallied around a retooled top forward line with center Pavel Daystuk surrounded by wingers Johan Franzen and Todd Bertuzzi, and they’ve benefited from the sharp contributions of Jimmy Howard, who is having a career year and leads all NHL goalies with 24 wins.

Certainly, the Wings have had some hiccups with ugly losses at Washington and Columbus, as well as a pre-Christmas collapse at Nashville. But when backup Ty Conklin does what he did Sunday – stopping 29 shots, including a penalty shot by Blackhawks rookie Jimmy Hayes – confidence can begin to swell in the locker room, particularly down the home stretch of the season.

With a look toward the final months of the regular-season, the last 13 weeks provide a friendly path for the Wings, who have 18 road games remaining, and just half of those in time zones that are two or three hours behind Detroit. That means 32 games will be played in the Eastern or Central Time Zones, making travel simpler for the players and start times more agreeable to weary-eyed fans.

The Wings also get 13 games left against some teams that have struggled in the first-half of the season and are currently either at .500 or below it in the standings, including games against Montreal, Edmonton, Anaheim, and four more with Columbus, who dismissed its coach Monday.

League general managers like to use 95-points as the barometer for teams making the playoffs. The Wings, Blackhawks and Blues need 42 points to reach the magic number. While the Central Division trio, along with Vancouver and San Jose seem distant for the playoffs, that leaves seven teams – Nashville, Minnesota, Colorado, Calgary, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix – to battle for the final three berths.

And against these foes seeking a playoff berth, the Wings are 10-5-1 this season while out-scoring them, 55-34.

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill
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