DETROIT — It’s not ideal, but the Detroit Red Wings don’t have a choice right now — their best players have to kill penalties.
The Wings came into Saturday’s game against the young, speedy Edmonton Oilers with uncharacteristically dismal special teams numbers.
They left with a hard-fought, 2-1 victory at Joe Louis Arena and much better stats than before the game.
On the power play, an area where the Wings traditionally have been in the top five in the league, the Wings were 26th. On the penalty kill, the Wings were next to last.
If you couple that with the fact that the Wings were also 22nd in the league in taking penalties, something had to give.
That something is players like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Valtteri Filppula and Niklas Kronwall getting more ice time while shorthanded.
Part of that is because of the absence of Darren Helm, who has missed all but one game with a back injury this season, and Brendan Smith, who’s out with a shoulder injury.
Although Daniel Cleary, Drew Miller and Jonathan Ericsson get the bulk of time on the penalty kill, the stars must make up the difference.
They did so splendidly Saturday — Datsyuk played 4:34 of his 21:23 shorthanded, Zetterberg 3:47 of 21:08, Filppula 2:01 of 19:02 and Kronwall 5:14 of 22:40 — and the Wings killed off five of the Oilers’ six power plays.
“I thought our penalty kill was outstanding,” coach Mike Babcock said.
Edmonton’s loan goal came with a two-man advantage. The Oilers had another 5-on-3 — with the score tied at a goal apiece early in the third period — but the Wings not only killed it off, they didn’t allow a shot on net.
Late in the third, after Kronwall had scored on the power play to give the Wings a 2-1 lead, the Oilers pulled their goaltender to get a 6-on-4 chance. Once again, the Wings killed it off.
“Those are big,” Miller said. “The ‘D’ are out there sacrificing their bodies, trying to make the big plays.
“I thought that was great there in the end. We had a lot of penalties to kill there late in the third, in a close game. I’d say the penalty kill came up big and Howie (Jimmy Howard) made some big saves.”
In this compressed, 48-game schedule, the Wings can’t afford to leave two points on the ice.
Still, Kronwall knows that the Wings are better served when Datsyuk can stick to playing with a man advantage or even strength.
“We don’t want to waste his energy playing PK,” Kronwall said. “We’ll have to stay out of the box and play 5-on-5 or 4-on-4 instead, and he can do his magic that way.
“I would hate for him to get hurt by a shot or something like that, but at the same time, he’s so smart that a lot of times the D-men won’t shoot the puck because he’s already in the lane.”
Rookie defenseman Brian Lashoff was also in for a lot of shorthanded time and could see the difference that Datsyuk makes when he’s out there.
“He’s obviously a special player, but the thing for me is that he wins a lot of draws,” Lashoff said. “That gives us a chance to get the puck out of the zone right away. It disrupts their power play.”
Datsyuk, 34, also scored on the power play, the Wings’ first goal of the game.
As it was, the Wings came into Saturday’s game eighth in the Western Conference and fourth in the Central Division. With the victory, the Wings jumped up to sixth — at least for now.
“It can all change back tomorrow,” Zetterberg said. “It’s so many games and a close schedule, so you don’t keep playing well, you won’t win a playoff spot.
“You’ve got to keep winning games. We did the job today and we’ve got to do it tomorrow again.”
As soon as Saturday’s game ended, Babcock started worrying about Sunday’s matinee against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
“We play in 22 hours,” Babcock said. “I played my big guys too much.
“You gotta win the game, but you’ve got a game in 22 hours. I guess we’ll deal with that (Sunday).”
BRUNNER FAMILY VISIT
Rookie Damien Brunner is happy to have some company these days.
His parents, Kurt and Karin, arrived Friday from Switzerland for their first visit to the United States.
“It’s cool they came over on vacation,” Brunner said. “I’m excited they’re here. I think they’re happy just to see me playing.”
Kurt and Karin will be in town for all four home games, but their son won’t be able to take them sightseeing.
“They stay with me,” Brunner said. “They figure out to get something going. I have to rest a lot with that schedule. They’ll find something.”
ZETTERBERG GETS ‘GREAT’ PRAISE
In an interview with NHL.com, Wayne Gretzky was asked about current players he likes to watch.
Although he mentioned Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, he also mentioned Zetterberg.
“My favorite player of the last 10 years has been Zetterberg,” Gretzky told NHL.com. “I think Zetterberg is the best player in the game (at his age). He’s been so physically beat up from the Stanley Cup playoffs, Olympics, all that goes with that, but he’s just very special.
“I think he’s the best Swedish player they’ve ever put into the National Hockey League, and there has been a lot of great ones, from (Borje) Salming to (Nick) Lidstrom.”
Needless to say, Zetterberg was stunned by the unsolicited platitudes.
“Of course, it’s a huge compliment,” Zetterberg said. “My first big idol. For him to say those kind of things about me, of course I’m real humbled about it, and it’s something that I’ll always remember.”
GUSTAVSSON BACK TO WORK
It’s been a tough go for goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, who has missed the entire season so far with a groin injury.
But he feels he’s getting closer.
Gustavsson practiced for 50 minutes before Saturday afternoon’s game, his longest stretch on ice.
“We turned it up a notch,” Gustavsson said. “It felt good. Another step in the right direction.
“We probably going to do something similar (Sunday), do some stuff on ice and go from there.”