What a rollercoaster season for the Detroit Red Wings. Early-on, they went through an 0-5-1 skid with Pavel Datsyuk struggling to find the net. He recovered his form, and throughout the middle portion of the season looked like a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate. All the while, the Wings piled up points at the Joe during what turned into an amazing record-setting streak of 23-straight home wins.
Goaltender Jimmy Howard was the constant, playing at a consistently high level and earning All-Star accolades while leading the NHL in the most important category of all: wins. Even when he went out of the lineup for nearly three weeks with a broken finger, the team continued to rack up points as journeyman Joey MacDonald stepped into the breach and performed admirably.
Howard returned, but wins were suddenly harder to come by, and he lost his first three starts upon re-entering the fray. A 6-0 shutout of Minnesota seemed to point to a return to expected results, but then came a groin injury in his next outing. What had been stability in goal has become a struggle for Howard to reestablish his topflight form.
Meanwhile, captain Nick Lidstrom and Datsyuk are out of the lineup, which partly explains the Wings' inability to string wins together. Both are skating, but neither is set to return before the team gets back from its final four-game western swing of the campaign. Datsyuk is recovering from a knee surgery that the organization thought would be better addressed in the moment and Lidstrom has a deep bone bruise on his ankle, which compromises his mobility. It's a pain-threshold dilemma for the captain, who was having a spectacular season in his own right, and he might have to deal with the injury for the remainder of the schedule and the playoffs.
Yes, the Red Wings' mostly-up-but-sometimes-down season will lead to the postseason for the 21st consecutive season. That much is not in jeopardy. What has come into question is their starting position for the race to the Stanley Cup.
Before March Flatness hit Hockeytown, the Red Wings held the pole position and were vying for the Presidents' Trophy. Now they look up at the Blues -- who continue to amaze and ascend; St. Louis has the best record in all of hockey -- and have Nashville right behind them in the Central Division. In a matter of weeks, the Wings -- dominant in Detroit with a 28-4-2 record -- have gone from having home ice throughout the playoffs to possibly not even having that advantage in a first-round 4 seed versus 5 battle with the surging and getting better by the day Predators.
OK, we could expect a little letdown once the home-ice streak ended at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks on February 23. The physical injuries endured by Detroit's top three players at the same time compounded that natural emotional sag and it has added up to a mediocre record since. More than anything, though, the Wings' 2-5 March record and current four-game skid proves the close competitiveness in today's NHL. Every two-point opportunity is no longer just clichéd coachspeak, but rather truly vital. Every slip, dip and blip during the regular season has consequences and conceivably compromises what all 30 teams set out to do: compete for the Stanley Cup.
The Cup is certainly the Red Wings' yearly yearning. More so than ever, the same holds true for the Predators. The two Central rivals are on a collision course for a first round match-up. The Preds bolstered their ranks with trade deadline deals for big bodies Hal Gill and Paul Gaustad. Now they'll get Alex Radulov back from his four season self-imposed exile in the KHL where he blossomed into that circuit's leading scorer of the past two seasons. All the pieces are in place for the Predators to move well beyond last spring's first-ever playoff series success.
The two teams have met twice before in the first round -- in 2008 and 2004 -- with the Red Wings moving on in six games each time. This time, though, it is the Wings who are in the position of having to find their footing and demonstrate that their home-win mark isn't this season's defining run.
The reality is that Howard and eventually Lidstrom and Datsyuk will restore order and with that, confidence. The Wings have time to get back to their game that carried them to the top of the league not so long ago. Yet, if we acknowledge that as truth, then we cannot ignore the numbers that show their special teams ranked in the lower third of the league, and their road record containing more losses than wins. The Preds, meanwhile, rank second on the power play, are just outside the top ten on the penalty kill, and have a solid 18-13-2 road mark.
So before the second week in April arrives, the most important consideration is the next available two points. Coaches league-wide repeat it like a mantra. Turns out it is true, even at the top of the NHL standings, and particularly in the Central Division.