Sometimes a team’s NHL season can be made or broken by a particular batch of games. Sometimes it’s a long losing streak in December. Other times a squad will suddenly go on a tear on home ice, pushing into a playoff contention seemingly out of nowhere.
The Detroit Red Wings are about to embark on one such season defining stretch.
At this time last week, the Red Wings were tied for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. They were pushing the Montreal Canadiens for the No. 1 seed while trying to fight off the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers. Since then they’ve lost three consecutive games by large margins, dropping them out of the Atlantic’s playoff picture and into a Wild Card spot.
There are three teams within three points of the Red Wings in the Eastern Conference, meaning that their upcoming six-game road trip could be a season maker — or breaker. Here’s a look at the stretch.
|1/4||New Jersey Devils|
|1/7||San Jose Sharks|
A few thing stick out about this road trip. Namely that the first two games are against Eastern Conference opponents that are beatable. The Devils game in particular will carry a ton of weight, as Detroit is tied with New Jersey in the Wild Card race (43 points each). That’s essentially a four-point game and it represents a huge opportunity for the team to start the trip off right.
The Sabres are sitting towards the bottom of the East, but they still represent a challenge that Detroit can’t take lightly.
After New Jersey the Red Wings will embark on their trip to the West Coast, where they’ll run into some stiff competition. It’s important to note that they’ll at least be able to spend some time at home following the Devils contest, which could make a huge different in terms of rest and energy level.
Looking farther down the line, we could learn a lot about what this squad is made of when they play the Ducks and Kings on back-to-back nights. This jaunt is about more than points for Detroit though. There are also a handful of things that they really need to hammer out over the next two weeks if the playoffs are to remain a realistic goal. The Red Wings have secured more loser points that a majority of the league, and that has helped their cause to this point.
They can’t continue to drop regulation contests at the rate they have over the last two weeks, however.
Over the last few games, they’ve been remarkably inconsistent in several key areas. Forward Brad Richards spoke frankly about that fact after losing 5-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins on New Year’s Eve:
“I don’t think we’ve been consistent throughout everything, five-on-five, special teams, the whole thing overall, offensively, defensively. So we came out of the (Christmas) break with a good, solid win in Nashville and for whatever reason we’ve been up and down in different areas since.”
The veteran’s analysis is spot on. Detroit has been a disaster on the penalty kill and it seems like Pavel Datsyuk is the only forward engaging well during 5-on-5 play.
[email protected] gets the #RedWings on the board 1-0. First goal by #RedWings player in 3 games not named @Datsyuk13
— jonathan davis (@westcoasthky) December 31, 2015
If the power play was clicking then maybe the even-strength struggles wouldn’t sting so much, but that hasn’t been the case. The Red Wings have been decent on the man advantage at times this season, but it hasn’t been clicking lately. They have fallen to 20th in the NHL with a 17.7 percent conversion rate.
Making matters worse, Detroit has also been giving up short-handed goals recently — a trend that simply can not continue.
Outside of the special teams issues, head coach Jeff Blashill also must start looking carefully at his goaltending situation. Jimmy Howard hasn’t won a regulation game in nearly a month and he’s given up 15 goals over his last five starts. Blashill has confirmed that Petr Mrazek will start against Buffalo on January 2. If the 23-year-old plays well, he should continue to start.
It’s likely that Howard will have an opportunity to square off with the Ducks or Kings, which would offer him a chance to get back into the win column again. Barring a meltdown, it should be Mrazek’s net to lose during this six-game stretch though.
So for this to be a successful road trip, Detroit must…
- Get goals from players not named Pavel
- Receive great goaltending from Mrazek
- Fix the catastrophic special teams play
The Red Wings have a lot of work to do, and simply getting back on track in these areas will help their playoff chances immensely.