CHICAGO – The next week and a half may proof to be the most valuable days of the Red Wings season, as they prepare to face-off against some of the top teams in the Western Conference.
“You always want to measure yourself against the best teams in the league,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “That’s where you really get a feel for where you stand. And we’re going to be playing some of the best teams coming up, so it should be a good road trip for us.”
The Red Wings are embarking on a six-game road trip – their longest in six seasons – beginning tonight against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Wings will return home following the game at United Center, but will fly out Friday on the second leg of the trip, taking them to Dallas, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose and Nashville.
Every game is critical to the Red Wings, who are battling for playoff seeding and home-ice advantage in the Atlantic Division. They were in first place in the division, as well as tied for the Eastern Conference lead, on Jan. 28. But since then Detroit has gone 3-3-1 and dropped to third in the division and sixth in the conference.
“You have to find a way to win games. It’s just that simple,” coach Mike Babcock said. “You’ve got to check for your chances and be real diligent about the process. Guys have to get better. If you can’t do it without the puck you’re not going to get to play, period. You have to be good to play here. That’s what we expect our guys to do. We’re always looking for who wants a bigger chunk of cheese.”
Certainly, the upcoming six opponents are looking to get better, too. All are either playoff locks, or – as in the case of the Stars and the Stanley Cup defending Kings – in striking distance of landing a berth.
“From here on out, it’s playoffs, no matter who we’re playing,” goalie Jimmy Howard said. “You’re jockeying for position, you’re trying to get in, so, it’s going to be like playoff games from here on in.”
The trip is filled with a number of possible pitfalls that features some of the league’s top goal-producing teams and individual scorers. The first test comes tonight against the Blackhawks, who has the NHL’s top-rated penalty kill, and the league’s leading scorer, Patrick Kane, who has produced 27 goals and 63 points in 57 goals, including seven points over the past five contests.
“He’s a good player, real good player,” Babcock said. “They have good depth in Chicago. They move the puck well on the back end. They’ve got good goaltending. They’ve had a good team there for a period of time. He’s a good, good player. He’s still a kid so he’s getting better.”
A few non-adolescent players still getting it done in the league are San Jose’s Joe Thornton, Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Nashville’s Mike Ribeiro, who are among the top 10 assist leaders.
As for the Red Wings, they found out in a very good game Monday – a 2-0 loss to Montreal – that time in space against the league’s best teams is a premium, which will only be magnified in the playoffs.
“It’s not easy. It’s tight. You need to work hard and win battles,” center Pavel Datsyuk said. “Every game is really tense and really tight. Now it’s maybe (27) games left and maybe it’s more intense because some guys are close (to making the playoffs) and some guys want to be higher seeds. The division is more intense. It’s common. You can feel it now.”
The Wings still own the best power play in the league (26 percent), but going against the top PK in the Blackhawks will be a challenge, which makes scoring 5-on-5 goals more important tonight.
“Everything kind of goes up and down during a game,” Kronwall said. “In general, I thought we’ve had a lot of energy. We’ve just got to make sure when we have those small dips within the game we’ve got to do a better job of keeping it simple. Getting the pucks out of our zone through the neutral zone and getting it deep. Because that’s where we’ve been caught a few times where we don’t get it deep and they turn on us right away. That’s something that we have to work on.”