Alex Ovechkin, taking off after a slow start, leads his unbeaten Caps against Detroit's stout defense. (AP)
By Stu Hackel
They won't be looking ahead of themselves, because the undefeated Red Wings must first host the Blue Jackets on Friday night, but we can look ahead for them because Detroit's next foe comes on Saturday night when they visit Washington for a date against the unbeaten Capitals at 7 p.m. Eastern time (and televised on the NHL Network in the U.S.).
First things first, however: Mike Babcock's team entered Friday night's contest with a 4-0 record, their most recent opponent being the NHL's silly schedule. The Red Wings hadn't played since last Saturday and, along with the Devils and Sharks, they've had the fewest games in the league so far. Detroit's light October schedule of nine outings reads more like something from junior or college hockey, clustered mostly around weekends. Babcock called it "painful," and his players agree. "It's kind of getting old," Brad Stuart told The Detroit News this week. "We'd like to get playing a little more. The practices are good, but you need to get a few more games in."
What have they done during their long stretches of gamelessness? This past week, Helene St. James in The Detroit Free Press reported they had two days off, played lots of ping-pong and...oh, yeah: worked on their power play, which started the season 1-for-19.
They'll skate off the rust against a winless Blue Jackets team (0-5-1) that already had newcomer Vinny Prospal questioning his teammates' effort in a postgame address this week (the lowlight being their lackadasical play on Jamie Benn's goal, which we wrote about Wednesday) as well as some grumblings from observers that coach Scott Arniel and GM Scott Howson need to go, something team president Mike Priest won't consider -- at least as long as his team is missing its big offseason pickups, suspended defenseman James Wisniewski and injured center Jeff Carter.
"They're a team that hasn't won that has the ability to win," Babcock said Thursday, taking nothing for granted. "I guarantee they'll be working hard. They had 38 shots against Dallas, they scored power-play goals, they looked dangerous. They'll be battling hard, and they'll be desperate. We're going to have a tiger by the tail, so our preparation is so important. We have to be ready, because they're going to be hungry."
UPDATE: The Red Wings scored three power play goals to defeat the Blue Jackets 5-2.
Regardless of Friday night's outcome, the 6-0 Caps will be eagerly waiting for Detroit's arrival on Saturday. This game will match the league's second best offensive team, the Capitals, against its best defensive team.
Washington will be fresh off its 5-2 victory over the Flyers, fueled by a three-goal explosion early in the third period. The good news for the Caps is that the guy they count on most for offense, Alex Ovechkin, woke up and smelled the season. He came into the game with only a goal and two assists, but he struck for a pair on Thursday.
Ovie's first -- which made up for an early interference penalty that led to the Flyers' opening goal -- was set up below the goal line when his limemate Nicklas Backstrom spun away from Claude Giroux (who was a bit soft on the play) and cut to the net. Ovechkin had gone hard to the other post, then backed-up as Backstrom's stuff attempt rebounded through the crease right to where Ovechkin had moved.
That gave Washington a 2-1 lead it never relinquished. The second goal -- in which Ovie backed up in the slot to create a passing lane for Backstrom, who had the puck along the wall -- broke the Flyers' back, and was the second of the three rapid-fire tallies in the third.
That's the kind of chemistry that the Caps top duo hadn't quite achieved in the early going. Ovechkin was physically engaged as well, and perhaps not always wisely. In addition to his interference call, he also barreled into Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, nullifying a Backstrom tally.
Only the Penguins' 26 goals surpass the Caps' 23, but Washington's Saturday foe is nothing if not expert at defending. Detroit couldn't say that last season, when the Wings averaged 2.89 goals-against per game, ranking 23rd in the league. In the early going, they are tops in team defense (1.25 goals against per game) and each of their goalies, Jimmy Howard and Ty Conklin, have recorded shutouts. That reflects both a renewed approach to Detroit's traditional puck possession game and input from some newcomers to Hockeytown.
The new approach has meant spending less time in their own zone, having the forwards get the puck from the defenders quicker and moving it up ice. Last season, Detroit seemed lacking, and despite finishing first in their division, the Wings' 25 regular-season regulation losses was their highest total since 1998-99. Especially in the season's late stages, they seemed bogged down in their own end more than in previous years.
"At times last year we were sluggish, weren’t paying enough attention to details," defenseman Niklas Kronwall said (quoted by Ansar Khan of MLive). "So far this year, we’ve hammered down on those details. I think we’re doing a better job, especially in our own zone. We’re winning the pucks quicker, that way we don’t have to spend as much time on defense."
Winger Johan Franzen picks up the thread from there: "You try to take the puck from [the opposing team] as quick as possible instead of letting them hang onto it for 10-15 seconds. You get tired really quick when you’re on defense, so it helps getting in there, getting the puck and trying to make a play. That’s the key, getting out from your own end as quick as possible."
And Detroit has improved at keeping the puck in the other end. "We’re hanging on to the puck and making plays in the offensive zone," said captain Nicklas Lidstrom, who will play his 1,500th NHL game on Saturday. "We’re not one shot and done, going the other way. It’s not just one or two lines that have been going offensively. All four lines have been creative in the offensive zone, getting chances."
The result has been the Wings wearing down the opposition and getting more shots on goal. Through Thursday, they're averaging 39 shots per game, second in the league to the Sharks' 40.5. Their average of 25 shots-against ranks third behind the Blues (23.3) and Sharks (23.5). They've also spread out the scoring, too. Ten different Wings have goals and all but two skaters have points.
Part of the Wings' early success has to be attributed to Babcock's new assistant coaches this season, Bill Peters and Jeff Blashill, neither of whom had prior NHL experience. Yet each brought fresh ideas to the job. And there are fresh faces wearing the Winged Wheel who are making it work as well. Veteran Ian White, Lidstrom's partner, is a strong puck mover and passer who fits into the renewed system perfectly, something Detroit needed when Brian Rafalski retired last summer. Like Rafalski, White is small.
But Jakob Kindl -- who is not exactly new, having risen up the depth chart last season after three years in the AHL -- is a bigger body at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, and his play so far on Detroit's back end has Babcock praising his work ethic and battle level after every game. He's been effectively paired on a steady third tandem with another big guy, Jonathan Ericsson, and Kindl's plus-6 is best on the club. Kindl has done so well that free agent signee Mike Commodore, who's been slowed by a preseason knee injury, will probably have some difficulty getting into the lineup.
While the Caps will provide a stern test, it's Columbus that will occupy the Red Wings' attention first. Babcock's group aren't looking ahead, but it's clear they're not looking back, either.
This is a live recording of the exciting performance of that song at the Upper Deck of The Roostertail in Detroit, from 1966...
...and here's how an abbreviated version looked about a year later on the Ed Sullivan Show: