Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill has spent much of his rookie season searching for the line combinations that would spark his team’s offense.
As it turned out, instead of looking forward, he just needed to look back.
Blashill reunited one of the best pairings in Red Wings history – “Euro Twins” Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk – and Detroit has ripped off three straight wins, including wins over probable playoff teams in the Islanders and Panthers.
Wednesday’s 3-1 win over Ottawa meant that the Red Wings have outscored their opponents 11-2 in the first three games of a five-game homestand. The six points they’ve earned have moved them into second place in the Atlantic Division and, at least for the time being, out of the wild card morass.
Is all of that due to Datsyuk and Zetterberg? Of course not. For one thing, it helps to have the NHL’s hottest goalie in Petr Mrazek. The 23-year-old is 9-2-1 with a 0.951 save percentage since New Year’s Day, allowing only 16 goals in 12 starts.
But putting the two elder statesmen back together – something that Dave Lewis first did in 2002-03 – has provided Blashill with a stable foundation for the rest of his lines. Add in Justin Abdelkader, who has been on the top line with Zetterberg for most of the season, and you have a trio who knows what to expect from each other at every moment.
“At the beginning of our careers, we played a lot with each other, but the last seven years, we haven’t been together that much,” Zetterberg told the media at Wednesday’s morning skate. “It’s like riding a bike and we’re happy to be playing together.
“Still, we know we have to produce or we won’t be helping the team.”
The reunion wasn’t an instant success – they were thrown together during a 6-3 loss at Florida – but they combined for 14 shots in the game. They had a quieter game in Saturday’s 5-1 win over the Islanders, although Datsyuk had two assists, but they dominated the third period Monday in a rematch against the Panthers.
With the Red Wings leading 1-0 in the last 10 minutes, Datsyuk scored twice in 68 seconds with Zetterberg getting assists on both goals. This time, they combined for 12 shots, seven by Datsyuk.
“I told Z to just pass me the puck and I’ll shoot,” he said after the game. “That is how we work. He holds the puck and makes good decisions, and he’s always in the danger zone.
“It’s been a long time apart and we needed some time, but we got lots of chances and lots of fun.”
Against the Senators, things worked again. The trio combined for seven shots, and Datsyuk set up Zetterberg’s goal that gave the Red Wings a 2-0 lead in the third period.
It’s easy to see why Blashill waited so long to reunite Zetterberg and Datsyuk – not many teams are going to give a 37-year-old and a 35-year-old 20 minute of ice time on their top line. Zetterberg isn’t the 40-goal scorer that helped the Wings win the Stanley Cup in 2008, and Datsyuk isn’t nearly as spectacular as he was during that run. Like every hockey player, they’ve lost speed and skills to age.
On the other hand, they’ve played more than 1,800 NHL games and their experience has helped cover for what Father Time has taken away. Even at 37, Datsyuk is one of the best two-way forwards in the league, while Zetterberg’s intelligence on the ice is a big reason that he got the unenviable task of replacing Nicklas Lidstrom as Detroit’s captain.
They have the wisdom to make plays while Abdelkader does the leg work, and they also give Blashill freedom to work with new combinations. Against the Panthers, he put high-scoring wingers Dylan Larkin and Tomas Tatar on a line with veteran center Brad Richards, and they combined for the first goal.
Against the Senators, it was the new third line of Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Jurco and rookie Andreas Athanasiou that gave the Red Wings a 1-0 lead, with Nyquist and Athanasiou setting up Danny DeKeyser in the first period.
The way Mrazek is playing, a 1-0 lead puts the opposing team under huge pressure, and Detroit now has three lines that are capable of giving them that advantage.
Can the two old guys keep it up? That remains to be seen, but at the moment, the Red Wings look like a playoff team instead of a group fighting for the last spot. That’s something that they enjoy.
“If the team keeps winning, we’ll stay together,” Datsyuk said. “That’s fun stuff.”