Road trip welcomes Wings back from break

ROMULUS, Mich. — It’s as mystifying as anything how a team with the best record in the NHL at the All-Star break could have a record under .500 on the road.

While no team has a better home record than the Red Wings’ 20-2-1 mark, their 13-14-0 road record is rather pedestrian for a team that wants to be among the elite.

“I think overall, we’ve got to be a better hockey club on the road,” coach Mike Babcock said at the team’s private airport hangar before the team flew out Monday afternoon. “We can’t hide from that. We’ve got to get better in our commitment to the defensive details of the game, starting on time, playing with more physicality in the offensive zone, these are all priorities for us in this last little stretch.”

Right before the All-Star break, the Wings had a very poor effort in a 7-2 loss in Montreal. Goaltender Jimmy Howard ended up getting pulled.

But the Wings can change that with a four-game road trip that starts Tuesday night in Calgary. Thursday they’re in Vancouver, Saturday in Edmonton and next Monday in Phoenix.

“We’ve obviously had at least two or three road games that have been very uncharacteristic of us,” forward Danny Cleary said. “Obviously Montreal was terrible. Our record speaks for itself on the road. We haven’t been good enough.

“For us to stay on top, we have to definitely get a better road record. This is a good chance for us, four games against four teams that are battling, too, so it’s going to be good for us but we certainly have to get going on the road.”

The Flames are three points out of a playoff spot, the Canucks are currently just three points behind the Wings in the Western Conference, the Oilers are second to last in the conference and the Coyotes are right there with the Flames.

Even losing one or two games could drop a team right out of the Top 8, something the Wings are aware of.

“I think everyone definitely sees the end of the regular season coming up here ’cause once we start playing games right now, everything’s going to go real fast,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “We’ve got to be sharp in every game because two points every night is at stake.”

Babcock took the opportunity to give a little extra nudge to general manager Ken Holland.

“The standings are very, very tight and the thing you always want to do as a team is you want to put as much heat on the general manager to help you out as you can,” Babcock said. “The better team you have, the more likely it is that he’s going to help you out.”

All-Star wrap-up

One thing about the All-Star Game in Ottawa did not surprise Howard at all — the fact that he had to face a penalty shot.

“It was par for the course, why not, my first game, my first All-Star Game, the first penalty shot,” Howard said.

Howard, who stopped Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos in the first period, is the only NHL goaltender to face a penalty shot in each of his first two NHL games.

Howard had said he was looking forward to meeting some of his fellow goaltenders while he was there. He was on Team Chara with Boston’s Tim Thomas and Montreal’s Carey Price.

“Sitting next to Carey Price, just learning how down to earth he is and how laid back he is,” Howard said. “He’s a great guy.”

Price felt the same way about Howard.

“I didn’t really know Jimmy before, so I’m really happy that I was able to spend some time with him and get to know him as a person,” Price told NHL.com. “I think a lot of goalies have a lot in common. The more you talk to somebody, the more you find things in common.”

Howard was forced to race Los Angeles goaltender Jonathan Quick in the fastest skater competition. Howard said he received some friendly advice from former teammate Kris Draper, now a member of the Wings front office.

“Giving me a little pep talk,” Howard said. “He noticed I gave up a little bit. I almost went down on that first turn and I said, ‘forget about this,’ I didn’t want to be the guy to take out those tires.”

Although he may not have enjoyed that particular aspect of the Skills Competition, he was amazed by one part.

“Well, the hardest shot, so I can see just how crazy I am,” Howard said. “When you’ve got some of those guys looking like they’re barely even firing and it’s over 100 (miles per hour). Why do I even stand in front of those guys?”

Pavel Datsyuk, who was appearing in his third All-Star Game, said seeing Zdeno Chara shoot a record 108.8 mph shot made him think one thing.

“Slapshot, it’s OK,” Datsyuk said. “But for sure I don’t want to stay in this line and block shot. I hope Jimmy take care of it.”

Although Datsyuk had joked before the weekend that he hoped to be the last player taken in the Fantasy Draft so he could win a car, he wasn’t upset Chara picked him first overall.

“I’m surprised (picked 1st) but I’m also happy,” Datsyuk said. “Very happy.”

Babcock didn’t watch the whole game, despite his son’s encouragement, but he did keep up with his own players.

“I watched Jimmy’s interview and was very impressed,” Babcock said. “My son kept yelling at me to come in and watch a little bit, and I saw Pav had it on a string a few times, but I didn’t really watch it that much.

“It was obviously great for Pavel to be selected where he was, it tells you how good he is. Jimmy Howard has come of age and is a real good goaltender. I was very impressed in the way he expressed himself as a man and how he thanked them for the foundation they built for him.”

Babcock said he had not decided whether Howard would start Tuesday in Calgary, considering he did not get a break.

Howard said he was ready to go if called upon.

“Whatever Babs says I’ll go with,” Howard said. “It was good. Hung out with family, it wasn’t like I was out at the bar till 3 in the morning or anything like that. It was good.”

Lidstrom healthy again

Captain Nick Lidstrom missed the team’s debacle in Montreal because of the flu, but said he’s fully recovered now.

“Traveled down south,” Lidstrom said. “We were down there over the weekend so it was a good few days. I got off the ice before the skate (in Montreal) was over and it just got worse and worse. It took me a few days to get over it so the break maybe was pretty good timing.”

Lidstrom, who had played in 213 straight games before that, felt strange watching his teammates play without him.

“I stayed in hotel and watched the first period,” he said with a laugh. “It’s different watching on TV rather than playing.”

Lidstrom laughed again when asked if it was a coincidence that the team played so poorly without him.

“I don’t know if I could have done anything,” Lidstrom said.

Super Bowl time

Dan Cleary is the man with the plan when it comes to the team’s Super Bowl preparations.

“We play Monday so we’re going to have a team dinner at a good restaurant on Sunday and watch the game together,” Cleary said.

Although Cleary couldn’t remember who had the New England Patriots in the team pool, he knew exactly who had the New York Giants.

“I know Pavel has the Giants,” Cleary said. “Everything he touches this year, unbelievable this guy. I tell you, nothing makes him happier than winning football pools. He’s in the mix.”

Babcock didn’t announce his pick yet.

“I like both teams,” Babcock said. “I like the quarterbacks. I think it’s going to be a great set-up. I was fortunate last week to pick both winners, so I’m excited about that. I think the National Hockey League has learned a lot from football in terms of access and selling their game.

“One thing about football, it’s a great game for fans. You’ve only got to go to a few home games. There’s lots of time to bet in between games and get fired up from the next one. It’s a great game that way.”

Howard has some conflicted loyalties for the big game.

“I don’t know, (wife) Rachel’s side of the family is all Pats,” Howard said. “My side of the family is all Giants. It’s an even split so we’ll see. I grew up a Buffalo Bills fan. I think I’m going to go with the Pats, same division and everything. Stick with the AFC.”