THIS WEEK @RWW - 1/07/04
THE CONFIDENCE IS THICK
By Eva Gronowska
The first half of the Red Wings 2003-2004 season wasnt what anyone in the league expected. The teams faced and overcome incredible adversity. Its been a roller coaster ride thats had fans and media covering their eyes and screaming at the twists and loops of the season. However, the Red Wings are seemingly without panic, have plenty of confidence and are having fun as they make their way into the second half of the season.
The differential idea - the coaches and managements idea that the Wings would be winning closer, lower-scoring games - turned out not to be quite relevant going into the second half. For one, there are plenty of goals to go around and theyre spread all over the line up. Further, the blue line, although missing Derian Hatcher, is playing at a stellar level and doesnt show a sign of stopping. Finally, the Wings goaltending, although an unusual team effort, has been spectacular.
When Luc Robitaille, Sergei Fedorov and Igor Larionov went to other teams, questions arose about whether the Wings would be able to produce offense and win faceoffs, the two areas affected most by the losses of Fedorov and Larionov. Yet, with the close of the year and half the season under their belts, the Wings have managed to dominate the goal-scoring category with 145 goals through 43 games. There was no reason to panic about the offense, for a number of reasons.
Weve got balanced scoring and Pavs has scored more goals than anyone has expected... Drapes has chipped in well and its been generally consistent contribution, Yzerman pointed out.
Pavel Datsyuk has stunned and amazed the NHL. In the first 43 games, hes scored 21 goals, 24 assists and has a plus-5 rating. Although Lewis said that Datsyuk certainly has a red flag on him for the rest of the season, Datsyuk continues playing like hes completely unstoppable regardless how much attention opponents pay to him.
I dont even think he notices it, Lewis said about opponents extra care with Datsyuk on the ice.
He just goes out and plays and it doesnt matter who he plays against. For an example, we played St. Louis and every time (Datsyuk) was on the ice, Joel Quenneville wanted (Chris) Pronger on the ice every time...Pronger would get off the ice if Pavel wasnt on the ice.
On Jan. 5, Datsyuk was named the NHLs Offensive Player of the Month for scoring 12 goals and assisting on 11 others in only 15 games. The Wings? A lower-scoring team? Not if Datsyuk can help it.
Nor if Kris Draper can help it, for that matter. Where once it took around 80 games for him to score, Draper walks into the New Year with a career high of 18 goals, including three shorthanded goals, a game-winner, game-tier and even...a power play goal? And its only the middle of the season.
Yet, whenever someone praises him for his offensive ability, he just smiles, shakes his head and says, Dont even start.
Guys are having fun with it, Draper said of his success, which has attracted ribbing from his teammates.
Im shaking my head. Theyre shaking their head. Its fun right now. Its fun to be able to do it when were winning hockey games.
With his added offensive confidence and dedication to his role, there is a good chance he may get some nods for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded to the best defensive forward in the league. Hes already a whooping plus-21.
Of course, not everyone is putting up the same amount of impressive numbers, but are still contributing in significant ways. Surprisingly, Nicklas Lidstrom only had four goals in the first 43 games, but three of those were game winners, including one overtime-winner and one short-handed winner. His other goal was a tying-goal. Kirk Maltby might only have six goals, but two have been game-winners, one also shorthanded. Boyd Devereaux has four goals, but he contributed a game-winner to help defeat the dreaded division rivals, the St. Louis Blues, in their own building. Rookie Darryl Bootlands first ever NHL goal, and so far only NHL goal, was also a game-winner. Talk about timely scoring. No reason to panic, because everyones contributing.
Coach Lewis said the reason that the Wings have found so much success is because of their constant patience. Its not just a veteran trait. Lewis said it was more a goal scorers trait, knowing when to take chances.
I see our guys having patience...I think maybe that comes with a goal-scoring ability, knowing that in the back of their mind, they can still generate some offense, he said.
Indeed the Wings have been patient. On average, the Wings were slightly outshot by their opponents in the first period. However, the Wings have often heavily out shot their opponents in the third period. Seventeen of Datsyuks 44 points have been gained in the third period. Similarly, Zetterberg, Hull, Yzerman and Draper have all done a lot of their scoring in the third period.
Derian Hatcher drastically changed the look of Detroits blue-liners when he signed in the summer. In training camp and preseason, it was hinted that the Wings style of play would be different as well. The coachs and management all talked about differential in the beginning of the year, thinking theyd be winning games 1-0, 2-1, making the most of their new and improved blue line. When Hatcher fell everyone was concerned that there wouldnt be a blue line, but Hatcher was far from the only improvement, or initially solid spot, in the blue line. Although the Wings would continue to adopt a puck control game, Coach Lewis talked about a more pinning and physical style of hockey this being based on the additional physical presence Hatcher brought to the table.
Hatcher, however, spent only 48 minutes and 46 seconds on the ice in three NHL games in the Detroit crest until Oct. 16 when he skated over a groove in the ice early in a game versus Vancouver. That small imperfection sidelined him with a tear in his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) until what the organization hopes will be sometime in March. The pinning style would have to wait for the moment. This new hole in the defense sparked more concern for the Red Wings situation. Yet, there was no reason to panic.
No reason to panic, because Detroits blue-line was well-equipped to handle the situation. In addition to veterans like Lidstrom and Chris Chelios, guys like Mathieu Schneider, Jason Woolley and rookie Niklas Kronwall have stepped up their games.
I thought our defending the puck was going to be a certain style, Lewis said.
After game three, things changed a bit and we went through a bit of a tumble. We scrambled around a bit, got some injuries and we sort of reidentified ourselves.
At the beginning of the year, Woolley was prepared to step aside to allow Hatcher to play big minutes. Yet, when Hatcher fell, Woolley turned heads with his solid play. Hes remained plus-17 throughout the Wings 43 games.
Niklas Kronwall, who will turn 24 in January, has also held his ground considerably well when he was called up. His plus/minus rates high among rookies, hes not afraid to play the body and hes chipped in four assists in 14 games. Further, he is no longer just filling in, but averaging about 15-16 minutes a game.
Hes shown us he can be a defenseman in this league, Lewis said.
Yet the unsung hero on the blueline is last years late trade deadline acquisition, Mathieu Schneider. He hasnt missed a game. Hes a plus-19 after 43 games and he contributes to penalty killing, the power play, as well as the 5-on-5 game. There have even been murmurs in the media that Schneider could be a Norris contender this year.
Hes playing like an All-Star every night defensively, offensively, positionally, Lewis said of Schneider.
He competes hard every night. Hes physical. Hell block shots. Hes been an All-Star defenseman for us.
The injury fiasco is posed the biggest problems for the Wings. It all started sometime in November and continued through December. At first, Curtis Joseph got a groin injury and Henrik Zetterberg got his leg broken. Then Darren McCarty got back spasms which led to 25 missed games in 2003. Six guys had groin problems, including Dominik Hasek, whos fallen victim to the what seemed to be a contagious and nagging groin problem. Tomas Holmstrom separated his shoulder. Steve Thomas got surgery on his knee which sidelined him after only 14 games as a Wing. Manny Legacy stepped on a puck and twisted his knee. Chris Chelios had to tend a hurt knee, returning to the lineup for the last game of 2003 versus Atlanta.
These injuries put another spin on Coach Lewis game plan, for at its worst point, the injury bug bit ten key players. Yet, once again there was apparently no need to panic, for Grand Rapids had young players to loan the Wings and those players, like Darryl Bootland, Mark Mowers and Kronwall, gained an unbelievable amount of experience.
You got to tip your hat to the people that came up from the minors, Hull said.
You know youre role and you expect it, Bootland said of coachs decision to reassign him to Grand Rapids.
Im just going to take what I learned down here and go down there and work on it and become a regular NHLer.
Yet, the biggest story that came from Grand Rapids was goaltender Curtis Joseph, who was sent to Grand Rapids once again just to be recalled. Just as he was about to play his second game as a Griffin, he got the call from the Wings needing his services in Buffalo. He hopped into a Cavalier with rookie Jiri Hudler and made the ride from Columbus. Upon his return, Joseph went 8-2-1 for the Red Wings.
All three goalies, Joseph, Legace and Hasek all finished 2003 with 14 games under their belt and all with similar statistics. Yet, the one with the most traveling and scrambling and uncertainty would have to have been Joseph, but Lewis said that his attitude has been tremendous.
I will say that its been an unusual situation in goal, Lewis said.
Curtis coming in, the whole process of sending him to the minors and coming back and playing excellent. Hes got his confidence back. Its been a situation that Ive never been through and our guys have adjusted well to it.
The buzz of the goalie situation has been quieted for the moment.
I think the situation is settled in now, Lewis said. Thats not to say there isnt uncertainty, but the players have adapted to whats going on; its become business as usual.
Weve gone through Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and back to Plan A, but its day-by-day... Well just deal with it today and see what happens tomorrow.
The Wings at the top of the point chart, there is room for improvement. Their scoring has tapers off occasionally and the power play recently stalled out for six games. After 22 failed power play attempts, the drought ended in the third period of the New Years game with Zetterbergs fifth goal of the season.
With guys gradually returning from injury, the team will have to once again readjust to different lines. The face of the Grind Line by itself has changed multiple times this year; Draper and Maltby saw Bootland, Mowers, Holmstrom and even Yzerman join their line.
Although the Wings schedule has been unusual theyve played the most games in the league, theyve had 10 back-to-back contests and theyve played division opponents until they were blue in the face it doesnt seem to be letting up. The Wings have certainly taken notice to the fact that theyll play half the back-to-backs, but their schedule is still packed tight with games. Starting March 11, for example, the Wings will have games every other day right up until the last game of the season on April 3.
Id like to play, Hull said.
Id rather play than practice, so the more games the better for me.
With injuries, goalie shuffles and a packed game schedule the first half of this Red Wings season has been successful. Theyre record stands at 26-12-4-1 after 43 contests. Although they admit there is still work to be done, the Wings are pleased with how the first half of the season has gone. Confidence is thick in the room. Panic is non-existent. The Red Wings have been often victorious and the running theme going into the second half is that everyone is having fun, from the goalies to the goal-scorers to the checkers.