Los Angeles — For all the talk about systems and structure, about grit and work ethic, about goaltending, sometimes it just boils down to rudimentary elements.
Like the ability to put the puck in the net.
Of all the statistics, this one perhaps is most revealing about the Red Wings this season — they are 1-6-2 when they’ve fired 40 or more shots on goal.
For all that they’ve done well this season — and they continue to play sound, passionate hockey — they haven’t been able to string together long winning streaks because of their inability to finish at the net.
“Some guys are goal scorers,” coach Mike Babcock said after Detroit put up 47 shots in a 3-1 loss in Anaheim on Wednesday, “and some guys aren’t.”
The Wings have more of the latter.
You have to go three pages deep to find the first Red Wing among the league’s top goal scorers. Seventy-nine players show up before Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom and Todd Bertuzzi, each with 15 goals.
You want to put it in perspective? Sidney Crosby and Patrick Marleau lead the league with 37 goals. The Wings second scoring line combined has 31 goals. Their third line has 23.
It’s not enough. Even with all the injuries, even with having to play a more conservative style, it’s not enough.
It doesn’t matter if you are Alex Ovechkin or Darren Helm, if you are an NHL player and you have the puck in front of an open net, you are expected to score.
“You have to bury it,” Babcock said.
Valtteri Filppula should have had a hat trick Wednesday. He was set up in the slot during a power play in the second period and whistled a shot wide of an open corner of the goal. He missed two unbelievable chances at the side of the net in the third period.
Danny Cleary had several wondrous chances, but missed high on a couple of shots and got robbed on a couple of deflections. Henrik Zetterberg had six shots on goal with nothing to show for it.
“No question we had every chance in the world,” said Bertuzzi. “But Hiller was good.”
Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller was outstanding. And a hot goalie is part of the equation. But the Wings have made goalies look better than they are more times than not this season.
To be fair, guys such as Helm, Patrick Eaves, Drew Miller and even Filppula aren’t expected to score 20-plus goals a year. In a normal season, Helm’s eight goals, Miller’s seven and Eaves’ nine would be considered bonuses.
No, this comes back to another rudimentary element of hockey — your best players have to be playing their best for the team to have success. And by no measure have Datsyuk and Zetterberg been as productive as the Wings need them to be.
You can add Bertuzzi and Cleary to that list, as well. There have been stretches where Bertuzzi carried the offense, but for all the scoring chances he’s had, he should have more than 15 goals, and he would be the first to tell you that.
Cleary’s numbers (12 goals, 14 assists) aren’t far off his normal pace, but his impact on the games hasn’t been as consistent.
Babcock was talking the other day about how players who miss training camp, or miss long stretches of the season, struggle to catch up to the pace of the game.
“Great players who sit out for a while come back and can’t figure out why they aren’t great anymore — it’s because they can’t catch back up to the pace,” he said.
Zetterberg and Cleary probably have a better understanding of that now. Both missed training camp and both have missed long stretches of the season with injuries. And, both have had inconsistent seasons.
Zetterberg, with 43 points in 49 games, is on pace to have his least-productive season since his second year in the league (2003-04).
Datsyuk’s reduced production is harder to figure. He went through training camp. He’s only missed two games this season. Yet, he has just 45 points in 55 games. He’s had way too many dry spells — starting the season goal-less in the first nine games, scoring twice over a 17-game span, twice over another 11-game span.
Like the team, they’ve shown flashes of catching fire, but it doesn’t burn too long. It’s not hard to see why the Wings, despite playing mostly sound defensive hockey, haven’t been able to sustain a winning streak (one four-gamer, two three-gamers) this season and why they haven’t been able to secure a foothold among the top eight teams in the West.
“I think we are going in the right direction,” Babcock said. “We just have to continue to work hard and keep asking our best players to be our best players.”