Red Wings earn road win, top spot in NHL
GLENDALE, Ariz. — With a franchise record 15-game home winning streak and a Western Conference-best home mark of 18-2-1, you would think consistent road wins would be a luxury for the Detroit Red Wings.
But in the NHL's suddenly superlative Central Division, road wins have become a necessity if you want to stay afloat in what's shaping up as one of the best races in league history.
With Thursday's 3-2 shootout win over the Phoenix Coyotes, Detroit climbed atop the NHL's overall standings with 63 points. But as the Wings look over their shoulder, they see not one, not two, but three teams breathing down their neck. Chicago and St. Louis are tied with 62 points and Nashville is fourth with 58. No other division in the league boasts more than two teams with 55 points or more.
If all four teams stay on their current pace, they would all finish with more than 100 points, marking the first time in league history that four teams from one division have achieved that feat in the same season.
"We know that no matter what we do, they're going to keep winning," Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said of the Blackhawks, Blues and Predators. "We just have to find a way to get two points each night. It's just as simple as that."
Detroit's recent road efforts haven't earned points for style. The power play is struggling mightily — 3 for its last 41 — and the Wings have needed extra time in three of their last six road games, but they've won four of those six to climb back to the .500 mark away from Joe Louis Arena.
"When you look at the national league, there's only about five good road teams and the rest of us are all the same," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "But we think we can be better. We think we're an upper echelon team that should be better."
So do the local and national media, who keep reminding the Wings of their uneven road play.
"It's been brought to our attention a lot more lately than usual," said forward Todd Bertuzzi, who scored the winning goal in the shootout on Thursday.
Maybe the nagging has helped. The Wings have looked more focused and structured defensively than they did earlier in the year when Babcock admitted they were allowing "too many goals."
"I think it's just doing the same things like we do at home," Bertuzzi said. "Simple hockey, the way we know how to play. We're getting rewarded with that right now."
It's also helped that goaltender Jimmy Howard is playing at an All-Star level that earned him that very distinction for the NHL's midseason classic Jan. 29 in Ottawa.
"Confidence is huge for an athlete no matter what sport you're playing," said Howard, who stopped 31 shots and all three shootout attempts on Thursday. "I've seen a lot of things, so a lot of things already don't faze me in my short career."
Howard, 27, signed a two-year contract extension with the Red Wings worth $2.25 million per season last February. His maturation is one big reason to be wary of this storied franchise as the playoffs draw closer.
Here are two more. The Red Wings are about $5.7 million under the salary cap. That gives them plenty of space to acquire players before the Feb. 27 trade deadline — especially when you consider teams are only responsible for the remaining portion of a player's contract.
And if the Red Wings should manage to win enough of these tight road games they are currently grabbing, they could earn the No. 1 seed in the NHL and bring that gaudy home record into the postseason.
At that point, the road to the Stanley Cup would go through the Joe with all of its intimidating tradition and its playoff-savvy team.
"Their core players are still the same, their coach is still the same," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "They're a pretty solid organization."