By stuhackel
February 02, 2012

As Detroit's cornerstone stars age and near retirement, the emergence of young All-Star goaltender Jimmy Howard bodes well, but the Red Wings will need more players like him to continue their run of success. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

When the Red Wings take on the Canucks tonight in Vancouver, the spotlight will first shine on Gordie Howe, the greatest Red Wing of all -- and, some believe, the game's greatest player ever -- who will be there to promote a local tournament that will raise funds to combat Alzheimer's disease. Howe has some cognitive issues of his own.

And then the light will shine on this game, as Detroit tries to pull away from the Canucks and the Western Conference pack. The Red Wings are three points ahead of Vancouver atop the pile, and it's been quite a climb since an early season slump left Detroit at 5-5-1. Since then, the Wings have gone 29-11, and any team that isn't the late 1970's Montreal Canadiens has to be happy with that pace.

UPDATE: Detroit defeated Vancouver 4-3 in a shootout, a game in which Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said "We got taken to school" by the Wings. "It was obvious to anybody they were playing the right way and we weren't and that's why they totally dominated us. We can play a lot better. Tonight the best team on the ice was Detroit. The positive is we got great goaltending and found a way to get a point."

When things were going wrong for Mike Babcock's group back in early November,  I wondered in this blog if perhaps it was a precursor to not just a bad season, but the end of Detroit's long run as an NHL power. The truth is, I still have some of the same concerns about this team as I did then. But any thoughts that this season was going to turn out badly were obviously quite wrong. Yes, the Red Wings still rank as an elite club.

In getting their season back on track, Detroit has had two seven-game winning streaks, lost back-to-back games only three times, and shown they can still do what the game's best teams always do: play any style and win. The Red Wings skate very well, have magnificent skill,  can outscore opponents (163 goals, tied for third in the NHL; their +45 goal differential ranks second), can play a shutdown game (118 goals-against, sixth in the league; they had been tied for fourth before an awful outing in Montreal just before the All-Star break), and don’t beat themselves with bad penalties (8.5 PIM per game, second-lowest in the league).

And no one should believe that the Wings can be pushed around. It seemed as if the Blues did on the Monday night leading up to the All-Star Game. St. Louis tried to intimidate the Wings, only to find them more than willing to drop the gloves and hold their own. And they forced the Blues into penalties that resulted in two of Detroit’s tallies in a 3-1 victory, including this one by Pavel Datsyuk, who is finally starting to get the recognition he deserves as the game's most complete player.

At the time the Wings were slumping, so was Datsyuk and other members of the core group. But as they found their bearings, so did the team. Datsyuk was a team-worst minus-5. Henrik Zetterberg, generally good for a point per game, had only four points in 10 games. Forwards Dan Cleary, Tomas Holmstrom, Todd Bertuzzi, Valtteri Filppula, Jiri Hudler and Johan Franzen weren't scoring . The same was true of defenseman Ian White, who went minus-4 during the early five-game slide.

Now White leads all NHL defensemen with a plus-25. Datsyuk is a plus-20 and the team's top scorer, and the rest of the Wings have picked up their game as well. Franzen's nine game-winners lead the NHL. Filppula has equaled his career high in points. After a year in the KHL and another under-performance in Detroit, Hudler seems to have found his scoring instincts again. The oft-maligned Bertuzzi is playing his rugged game and some of the best hockey of his career, at age 36.

No one defies age more than captain Nick Lidstrom, who continues to be one of the game's top defensemen at age 41. “He’s one of the best players ever, period,” Babcock told Dave Stubbs of The Montreal Gazette last week. “He’s an incredible human being, he’s very humble and he provides unbelievable leadership. I think he’s the best player leader in the NHL. Because of no ego, he doesn’t allow the rest of the team to have ego and then you’re just about winning. The team comes first and to me that’s the best situation for any coach."

While he plays a different style, hard-hitting, hard-shooting Niklas Kronwall has emerged as Lidstrom's heir apparent on the blue line. Wings defensemen lead the NHL with 33 goals, 11 from Kronwall and 10 from Lidstrom. As a group, they often come in late and are allowed to join the rush because their forwards are so good defensively and don’t commit many turnovers in the neutral zone.

But perhaps the most impressive Red Wing this season is Jimmy Howard, who has grown into an All-Star goaltender. He personifies an organizational strength -- how well Detroit develops players. He wasn't rushed despite the obvious talents he showed while playing three years at the University of Maine. He spent four in the AHL before claiming the Wings' starting job. Now in his third full NHL season, he’s become one of those goalies who, when he’s on his game, not only stops all the shots he should, but lots that he shouldn’t.

The Red Wings are the closest thing to a dynasty the NHL has had since the Gretzky-Messier Oilers. In fact, they've been a top team since Scotty Bowman joined them in 1993. Sure, not everyone loves them but as Iain MacIntyre wrote in The Vancouver Sun, they are hard to hate: "The franchise’s entire existence since the chainsaw wars with the Colorado Avalanche in late 1990s has been one long, syrupy Hallmark moment."

The key to Detroit's future, as it is with all teams, will be to produce more cornerstone players like Howard as its old guard ages and retires. Without high draft picks, this organization has always been able to find gems in the late rounds that have kept the continuity of talent. Are the current young Wings good enough to step up their game to be impact players? Or will GM Ken Holland be forced to look outside  to bring in the next major pieces? It will be an interesting development to watch during the next few seasons. Ed Willis of The Vancouver Province wrote about the way the Wings work prior to Thursday's game.

Game plan: One fascinating aspect to tonight's game against the Canucks will be watching how Babcock and his Vancouver counterpart, Alain Vigneault, deploy their troops. Will Babcock try to go strength on strength and get Datsyuk's line on against the Sedins? If so, will Vigneault change out of that to put Manny Malhotra's line on to check Datsyuk's and free up the twins to go against someone else?  These are two great puck possession teams. No one cycles better than the Sedins and, led by Datsyuk's wizardry stickhandling, Detroit almost always puts its opposition on the defensive. It will be fun to see which team is able to impose its style most on the other.

The Canucks haven't done badly either of late, going 7-2-2 in January. To hear them tell it, however, they are winning but not playing their best. They have surrendered 30 or more shots to their opponents eight times and twice played 20 minute periods where they managed to take only two. In another period, they took three and in yet another, just four. Twice they blew third-period leads (to Tampa Bay and Edmonton), but got the two points by winning the postgame skills competition.

“Obviously if you're giving up 35-plus shots, and those kind of quality opportunities to the opposition, you're probably not going to be on the winning end too much,” Chris Higgins told Elliot Papp of The Vancouver Sun. “It's a long season, 82 games, and sometimes you're in stretches where the team play dips a little bit. I think that's a hard thing for fans and reporters to understand."

That's the truth.

Otis was probably inspired by Ray Charles' version with Margie Hendricks of the Raylettes.

But the original was by the "5" Royales.

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