It’s never a good sign when Mike Babcock opens a postgame press session with “I hope the people in Michigan were already sleeping.”
The Detroit Red Wings haven’t exactly been Pittsburgh Penguins-like in their ability to soldier on with key talent out of the lineup, falling by a combined score of 9-2 in back-to-back losses to Los Angeles and Anaheim this week – a pair of teams ranked 11th and 12th in the compacted Western Conference standings.
Pavel Datsyuk remains questionable for Saturday’s game at San Jose while Nicklas Lidstrom is expected to miss his ninth straight as the Red Wings try to salvage one game from their California misadventure. While much attention has been devoted to their home-ice success, Detroit is 16-20-1 away from Joe Louis Arena this season and is in danger of surrendering home-ice advantage in the first round to Nashville. Entering play on Friday, the Predators were one point behind the Red Wings’ 91 points with a game in hand.
“To be honest with you, I can speculate on that stuff, but the biggest thing is you’ve got to get your team playing,” Babcock said of the team’s tenuous hold on home-ice seeding. “There’s 11 games left in the regular season for us, we need to get people back and healthy, and we need to get playing good. But instead of waiting for the cavalry, why not play right now?”
“Where we finish is where we’re going to finish. That’s just the reality of the situation. But you’ve got to go in feeling good about yourself to give yourself an opportunity, and I can’t imagine we’re feeling very good about ourselves right now.
The offense has slowed as one of the league’s more consistent power plays year-in and year-out hasn’t scored in 28 chances spanning seven games. Something was visibly amiss when the Kings scored shorthanded, on the power play, and into an empty net and controlled the special teams so dominantly despite three previous losses to Detroit in which they allowed three power-play goals and scored once on 13 opportunities.
“We just have to go back to the basics,” Niklas Kronwall said, analyzing the team’s power play. “Get the puck up to the top, and just shoot the puck. Get the pucks to the net – that’s where everything happens.”
“All these cute plays, they’re just not there. We have to just go back to the basics right now.”
Many of the players hinted at a day off on Thursday coming at the best possible time, with Kronwall articulating the need to “just think about something completely different.”
“Right now, obviously, we’re not going anywhere the way we’re playing right now,” Kronwall said. “At the same time, we feel like we have a good group in here. We just have to stay positive and keep thinking, keep believing in ourselves. I think we all feel like we are a good hockey team, and when we do the things we want to do, when we play the way we want to, we’re a hell of a hockey team. That’s what our mindset has to be moving forward. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We’re not going anywhere that way.”
PEAKING PENS VIE FOR TOP SPOT
There are plenty of stories about individual valor on this Pittsburgh Penguins team – Sidney Crosby returning from a 40-game absence, Evgeni Malkin’s Hart Trophy-worthy season, and the improvement in quality of the minutes Marc Andre Fleury was asked to provide in net are among them.
Under head coach Dan Bylsma it’s about a team greater than the sum of its parts, however, in which “an exciting atmosphere … an atmosphere that wants to do the right things” pervades, as James Neal described earlier in his breakthrough campaign.
“When you’re winning, you’re having fun,” he said.
It should not come as much of a surprise that the Penguins stretched their winning streak to 10 games Thursday night with a 5-2 road win over the lukewarm New York Rangers after a welcomed late-season, three-day respite. After returning from the head and neck injuries that had sidelined him for the previous 40 days, Crosby entered the game two minutes in and was still on the ice for a Pittsburgh goal when Matt Cooke hacked the puck past Martin Biron at the 2:54 mark. Compiled with an assist later in the game and his performance in a 5-0 win over the Islanders on Nov. 21, Crosby has two goals, five points, and a plus-seven rating in his two comeback games this season.
“To kind of get into a game like that, with a big situation like that, and the intensity and everything that comes with it, I’m just happy to get that first one over with and to keep going here,” Crosby said after the game.
He wasn’t targeted much by New York, the team that leads the NHL with 2,081 hits. Crosby spoke after the game of his lack of a desire to test his endurance and ability to withstand more physical play.
“I felt like last time I probably was trying to test myself a lot more than I probably needed to,” he said.
“I think tonight I wasn’t really looking for it quite as much and feel like I was able to do that. Leading up to the games, I didn’t have to go looking for it. I think if anything, not that I was trying to avoid it, but I wasn’t quite as quick to initiate it, maybe as I was last time to kind of test myself.”
The question can now be asked – are we seeing a transfer of power atop the Eastern Conference?
It took only 10 days – from March 5 to March 15 – for the Penguins to whittle the Rangers’ Eastern Conference lead from 10 points down to four points with a Pittsburgh game in hand. With nine consecutive wins pre-Crosby and Letang returns, with the aforementioned individual feats and with the success Dan Bylsma has found maintaining focus in a Jack Adams-worthy campaign, coupled with New York’s 4-4-1 March, the Eastern Conference race and home-ice advantage is likely to come down to the final week of the season.
The two teams meet on April 5 in Pittsburgh, the second-to-last game of the season for both squads.
SOME TALK, MINOR ACTION
NHL general managers concluded their annual March meetings in Boca Raton earlier this week, and absent was the furor over head injuries, discussion of the 1-3-1 zone defense, and realignment questions that had drawn considerable speculation at the previous meetings in November.
The only major update was that there really wasn’t anything to update – there haven’t been any formal collective bargaining discussions between the league, the owners and the players union in advance of the expiration of the current agreement on Sept. 15.
Though discussion over the elimination of fighting drew some minor consideration, one rule change that generated a recommendation was the support of the no-touch hybrid icing model used in NCAA and USHL hockey, in which the defenseman would race the forechecker to the faceoff dot to confirm or nullify an icing, instead of the current touch-model.
“We want them to determine the race 30 feet from the boards,” Toronto Maple Leafs gm Brian Burke said.
For the rule to be implemented, two thirds of a competition committee and the board of governors must approve it.
General managers also expressed their support of experimenting in the AHL with a rule change requiring defensemen to cross the faceoff dots in their own zone before passing the puck past center ice in an effort to encourage a forecheck from the opposing team.
While there was also minor discussion on the eliminating or penalizing players for hand passes, there won’t be any tinkering with rules in place.
“I think it’s safer to do that than having to swing sticks,” Los Angeles Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell said of hand passes in the defensive zone.
His coach, Darryl Sutter, had a rather bold opinion on some rule changes he had advocated in the past.
“I thought we should take ’em all out, yes, take all the lines out,” Sutter joked. “Just throw the puck out there and away you go.”
Joking aside, Sutter also spelled out the ultimate philosophy of tinkering with the game’s rules, perhaps aligning with Bettman’s viewpoint on Wednesday that “the game’s in a really good place.”
“You’re still trying to get ways to always keep the game so it’s not slowing it down in terms of whistles, protecting players, and then anything that keeps the offensive part of it, the zone part of it working,” Sutter said.
GAME OF THE WEEKEND
Sunday, March 18, 12:30 PM ET Pittsburgh Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers
Sidney Crosby’s 30 points in 18 career games at the Wells Fargo Center is his highest total outside of Pittsburgh, and he’ll face a stiff challenge playing in the second leg of back-to-back games against a team desperate for first-round home-ice advantage. Ilya Bryzgalov has posted shutouts in four of his seven starts this month and rides a seven-game winning streak into this weekend’s action, though with a game Saturday afternoon in Boston, it’s possible Sergei Bobrovsky will see time in net this weekend. Ten goals were scored in a 6-4 Pittsburgh triumph the last time these teams met, on Feb. 18, though a lower tally should be expected on Sunday. The teams will meet two more times over the season’s final seven days. And if you’re on the West Coast, what better way to recover from St. Patrick’s Day revelry than waking up to Penguins-Flyers and a cup of coffee?