If Detroit has any designs on winning its fifth straight Western Conference regular season title, then it better find a way to earn a win against the San Jose Sharks Wednesday night at Joe Louis Arena.
The Wings have pulled away in the Central Division and have made slight gains on the Sharks, yet remain five points back with two more games played than San Jose heading into action Wednesday. With this being the final meeting between the two teams, it’s obvious that this is as close to a must-win game that Detroit will face until the postseason.
It’s not as if the Wings have slacked off at any time this season. Their worst month was January (and really that was limited to a late slump), and I doubt the 7-4-2 mark last month sent any of their fans into therapy. In fact, Detroit, one of the model organizations of the league, is on its way to bettering its record for the second straight season. Yet, San Jose is showing no cracks in its game, making it next to impossible for Detroit to gain any traction in the standings. Are the Wings locked into the No. 2 seed in the West? We’ll have a much clearer idea after this battle.
There are a couple of factors working against Detroit here: it’s dropped two of the last three vs. San Jose; and the Wings aren’t exactly soaring right now. Sure, they had rhymed off six straight wins earlier this month, but have been uncharacteristically middling over the past five games (2-2-1) after getting dumped by 5-2 in Minnesota on Saturday.
Some things to watch for in this game:
- Claude Lemieux will not get a standing ovation in his return to Motor City after a five-year retirement. The 43-year-old super pest is among the most hated men in Detroit history. Something tells me the half decade Lemieux spent in his rocking chair hasn’t changed that.
- Detroit’s goaltending situation is in a bit of a mess right now. Prospect Jimmy Howard was brought up from Grand Rapids to take the place of the slumping Chris Osgood, who has been given a “mental breather.” Howard, who is enjoying an excellent season, didn’t fare well in his season debut on Saturday as he got rocked early, but he is someone to keep an eye on for the future. With the aging Osgood suffering through his worst NHL season, Ty Conklin has proved to be a real saviour for the Wings this season, and he’s definitely someone you want to consider adding if you need a goalie. In our pre-season rankings, we expressed concern over Osgood’s ability to handle a huge workload, but certainly didn’t see this collapse coming. Osgood’s 10-day break will end Friday night when he goes back in net against the Kings. If Detroit has any hope of making a move on San Jose, it will need Osgood to return to his form from last season, or at least something resembling that. Conklin, meanwhile, will be looking to extend his 11-game home winning streak – a run that has matched the third best in Red Wing history. Overall, he’s a perfect five-for-five when he starts in February. Like I said, Conklin has been an absolutely lifesaver for the Wings.
- This is a battle pitting the top two power plays in the NHL against each other. However, Detroit didn’t exactly look like the best power play team in the league Saturday, going 0-for-5 with the man advantage, but had gone 9-for-17 in the three games before that loss. And therein lies the difference between these two teams: while San Jose – with the fourth best penalty killing unit in the league – is capable of shutting down Detroit’s power play, the same can’t be said for the Wings, who are one of the worst penalty killing teams in the NHL. Advantage San Jose.
- Dan Cleary, who just keeps getting better since he arrived in Motown, is heating up with three goals and two assists in his past four games. Need a forward? He could be available, and while he isn’t racking up the +/- numbers he did last season, Cleary is headed for his first 45-point season, a total he should easily eclipse now that he’s been moved to the top line in Detroit. Now, if he can just learn to stay healthy, he could turn into a serious difference maker. A jaw injury cost him a good chunk of 2007-08, and this season it was an eye injury.
- Don’t look for the Wings to get shut down very often like Saturday, when the Wild held them to a pair of goals. Detroit definitely had its struggles when it limped out of January on a season-worst five-game losing skid, but since then, the Wings have turned it own, scoring 48 goals in 11 games while going 8-2-1. Having said that, this week is a tough test for Detroit’s NHL-leading offense, as it had to deal with Minnesota, and its second-best GAA in the NHL, and now San Jose, almost as good with the third best GAA.
- As great as he was last season in his debut with the Wings, Brian Rafalski has been even better this season as he puts together a career year, at least offensively, at the age of 35. He’s recorded assists in four straight games (six helpers in total), and going back even further, he has 12 points in his last eight games and has managed two or more points in half of those contests. He made the top 10 in our pre-season rankings, and although his +/- isn’t as high as we’d like, Rafalski certainly has been all that on offense.