Kukla's Korner

The Malik Report

Red Wings-Maple Leafs set-up and overnight report: tonight’s game’s more than a convenient narrative

While I'm dashing through the sleet to attend my family's Christmas party this evening, the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs will tangle in something of a Winter Classic preview (7 PM, FSD/CBC/NHL Network U.S. with the usual Center Ice/GCL blackout/97.1 FM), all ahead of tonight's episode of HBO's 24/7 series at 10 PM (EST; again, the alternate showings are strangely scheduled)...

And I hate to say this, but I feel like the people preparing to watch or broadcast this game are either looking too eagerly toward their close-up or are have forgotten that there's going to be an actual, unscripted hockey game taking place on the ice at the Air Canada Centre tonight, because much of the lead-up to tonight's game has been...

Half-assed, and as trite and predictable as the yelling at Friday's City Council meeting approving most but not all of the details surrounding the expansion of "Downtown" Detroit's footprint to encompass the Red Wings' follow-on rink.

NHL.com tossing off a "Winter Classic Preview" preview penned before the Wings beat Calgary 3-2 in OT on Thursday and the Leafs defeated Phoenix 2-1 in a shootout on Thursday, and leaning on that preview hard on Friday?

Check.

The CBC's Jim Hughson suggesting that the Wings are struggling because they're old?

Check.

Ken Holland's interview on Detroit Sports 105.1 FM on Friday being preceded by the Free Press's Evil Drew Sharp suggesting that Ken Holland's lost his touch for the umpteenth time because the Wings replaced Valtteri Filppula (who clearly walked out the door for more playing time given that he was offered the same money his replacement was) with one Stephen Weiss, whose groin's status as possibly requiring surgical repair (Weiss was advertised as coming to town a step slower than Filppula, and by the time he stopped trying to fight whatever ails him, he looked a step slower than Daniel Cleary [who's playing well!]; also: Holland's interview with NHL.com's Brian Hedger regarding Weiss was far more revealing than Sharp rambling) may or may not be revealed today?

Check.

The Toronto Sun checking in on the Leafs players' and coaches' likely outdoor wear?

Check.

The Toronto Star posting the schedule for the Hockeytown Winter Festival and Alumni Showdowns for the first time, debating which one of the Maple Leafs' Alumni is the best Leaf ever (Toronto's not exactly a team known for its roster continuity), revealing that Mats Sundin won't take part in the Alumni Showdown, asking the practicing Leafs alums who their favorite Leaf is, tossing off Ye Olde By The Numbers comparison of the teams, having Rosie Dimanno spin yarns with Wendel Clark, and asking Toronto native Kris Draper about his first game at Maple Leaf Gardens and how the Wings alums are preparing for the Alumni Showdown..

Okay, wait, this stuff from the Toronto Star's Brendan Kennedy is actually interesting...

Draper said the Wings’ alumni have already been skating for a couple of weeks and the appetite among the retired players for more ice time has been voracious.

“It’s been fun. We had a real good skate today. I think we had actually 10 forwards on each team. Guys were given ’er pretty good today. We had two little balls of hate — Pat Verbeek and Dino Ciccarelli — and we made sure we split those guys up.”

Noted fitness guru Chris Chelios has also been cracking the whip, apparently.

“We even had a little conditioning skate at the end of practice,” Draper said, laughing. “Cheli wanted to skate.”

Last week Steve Yzerman — the Wings’ greatest player after Gordie Howe and the current GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning — confirmed he would take part in the game, giving the retired red-and-white a big boost. “We were all glad to see Stevie join in.”

Draper’s also looking forward to getting back together with “The Russian Five”: Igor Larionov, Slava Kozlov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov, whose career was cut short in 1997 when he was paralyzed following a car accident, but has confirmed his attendance.

“I think everyone is just really excited about this,” he said. “I think the alumni game has picked up more speed after the Philadelphia one (in 2012). The number of great players and the history both organizations have, it should be a great day. It wasn’t hard to fill the roster for two games. I’m looking forward to seeing all of the guys.”

And it turns out that Draper engaged in a long chat with The Fan 590's Tim Micallef on Friday night, and the interview's more than worth your time:

(For the record, Mickey Redmond's chat with Detroit Sports 105.1's Drew Lane's pretty dang good, too, especially when Mickey Redmond reveals that the Wings work with U of M to implement their baseline neurological tests)

Okay, so it turns out that it's not all fluffernutter, though I will sooner shave my back than revel in the glee with which Leafs announcer Joe Bowen recall Nikolai Borschevsky's game-winning goal against the Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs in 1993 (Bowen was "down the hall" from Bob Cole; I was sitting seven rows behind the Wings' bench, and I've despised the Maple Leafs like no other team since...Well, actually, I think that's genetic. I hated the whole, "Blue is for boys and pink is for girls" spiel because I always believed that red was better than blue).

What I was trying to say is this: many media types--and some fans--are so caught up in the drama and spectacle of the lead-up to the Winter Classic that it seems like they believe the result of tonight's game is an afterthought as long as HBO paints a pretty picture of the "story."

Me, I'm a "story" person, and a Red Wings fan who happens to pretend to be a professional blogger, so I look at the standings, see the Wings sitting 2 points ahead of the Leafs in the Northeast Division standings (41 to 39) despite the Wings' 16-12-and-9 record actually looking a little shaky as compared to the Leafs' 18-16-and-3, and all of a sudden, I warm up to loser points...

And I really, really, really believe that what happens on the ice, and what the players author tonight regardless of the presence of the Toronto Maple Hype Machine (as Jonas Gustavsson told MLive's Ansar Khan, the difference between Detroit and Toronto is, "[W]hen you do an interview, here you have five (media) guys, there you had 25 guys."), Hockey Night in Canada, HBO, etc. etc., matters way more than how prettily the game is played or how picturesquely it's portrayed.

The Vancouver Province offers the most honest take on tonight's game that I've read thus far--and it's still pretty bloody cynical:

NHL, Detroit Red Wings at Toronto Maple Leafs: The Red Wings are, if you look at the standings closely, under .500. So are the Maple Leafs. This probably wasn’t what the NHL had in mind when it scheduled the two teams to not only be the participants in the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, but, as a result, be the subjects of HBO’s annual miniseries about the lead-up to the big outdoor game. So far, after one episode, the Leafs look pretty uninteresting. And, not surprisingly, so do the Red Wings. In fact, they’re battling to be the least interesting team and it’s awfully close. So, of course, they’re meeting tonight to provide plenty of cool images for the HBO cameras, if not a compelling storyline. Still, don’t count out the venerable Red Wings this season, as they continue to impress with the young players they introduce to a consistently successful lineup.

The Maple Leafs' coach and players addressed the cameras' presences (as did Kyle Quincey, during another Fan 590 interview) on Friday, and let's just say that Leafs coach Randy Carlyle isn't a fan, as noted by the Canadian Press's Stephen Whyno:

“It’s not normal what we’re living right now,” Carlyle said Friday. “These people are professional people, they try to make it as easy as possible. But it’s not easy to sit and give a team meeting and have a team meeting with a camera and a microphone. It’s just not normal for us. We’ve never had to do that.”

It’s a whole new world the Leafs and Detroit Red Wings have been living in during the lead-up to the Winter Classic. Carlyle had his reservations about the intrusiveness of the process before the camera crew arrived, but he has also justified it as part of the deal that comes with being in Toronto.

It's definitely a different world for the Wings given that Gustavsson's right as rain about the size of the Wings' media corps on a day-to-day basis...

Working through it is the challenge.

“I’ve talked about white noise and I’ve talked about distraction and this is just another one for us,” Carlyle said. “It’s hard in some ways to blame people for not paying attention to it or not being attached to it, but on the other hand, we have a job to do.”

...

In addition to praising the professionalism of HBO employees, Carlyle said they’ve respected his privacy when he requested it.

“But it’s just not normal,” he added. “It’s not a normal everyday thing that we’re accustomed to, and it does take some getting used to.”

But the players are under a much less intense individual spotlight, and they know it, as they told NHL.com's Joe Yerdon...

The HBO cameras started following the Maple Leafs on Dec. 4. Since then, they have gone 4-5-0.

"I would just say the first couple days you thought about it, then you get used to the guys," Maple Leafs defenseman Carl Gunnarsson said. "They're pretty good at hiding and staying in the background. They're doing a great job."

The presence of the cameras and the HBO crews is a hot topic for players and coaches alike.

"I think it's honestly worse for the coaches," Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer said. "For us we just kind of do what we normally do. I don't think it does disrupt too much, but I think when you're talking and giving the team whatever, if it's a pump-up message or just talking about the game and having the camera right in your kitchen, I think it's honestly more awkward and harder for them than it is for us. I know that if I had to talk to a team with a camera in my face that would be more distracting. Honestly I think they get the worst of it."

But they've got a game to play tonight, too:

"I think right now as a team we need those wins and [Thursday] was a really big win for our confidence," Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier said of a 2-1 shootout win against the Phoenix Coyotes. "We can be happy but not satisfied because we haven't won too many games lately, so definitely, I don't think we're focusing on the Winter Classic as a group, we're focusing on [the game Saturday] with Detroit and not the Winter Classic."

The Maple Leafs and Red Wings are divisional rivals this season for the first time since 1997-98 and face each other for the first time this season Saturday. Having that game to set up the Winter Classic works out well for the teams and the cameramen.

"I don't know if you ever look forward to seeing a team come in here but it sure is something special this year with the Winter Classic coming up," Gunnarsson said. "We just want to make a stand here [Saturday]. It'll be a fun night."

Amidst Carlyle's grumbling (you may watch his 8:13 off-day presser on the Leafs' YouTube channel), the Toronto Star's Mark Zwolinski noted that it is possible but not probable that Jonathan Bernier, whose "retro tan" (i.e. brown) pads drew Carlyle's ire, may start opposite Jonas Gustavsson tonight...

Bernier has been dealing with an injury, believed to be a sore knee from his collision with Pittsburgh’s Jayson Megna in Monday’s game. He returned to practice Friday after not skating for two days.

“I feel much better today, but we’ll see (Saturday) if I play,” Bernier said about his availability against the Red Wings. “We’ll see how I feel in the morning skate. When I came out of the net, I think that’s when it happened. I didn’t feel it then, but the next day it hurt. I’m pretty confident I can play (Saturday), but we’ll see.”

And again, Bernier insisted that tonight's result is what matters:

While both goalies are eager to start before a crowd of more than 100,000 at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich., they remain focused on the bigger picture.

“Sure you want that start,” Bernier said. “It’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but you also want the two points and that’s what we push each other for is the wins.”

The Canadian Press's Stephen Whyno took note of Carlyle's stance on tonight's starting goalie, or the lack thereof...

The lower-body injury forced Bernier off the ice for two days earlier this week and cost him a planned start Thursday night. But he and Toronto coach Randy Carlyle are optimistic he'll be able to play Saturday night when the Detroit Red Wings visit Air Canada Centre.

"He is much better today and I would deem that he's probably available to us," Carlyle said Friday. "But we'll make that assessment (Saturday) morning after today's treatment and how he feels after today."

Bernier said he was "pretty confident" he'd be able to suit up but will wait until after the morning skate to decide.

Carlyle didn't think it was "fair" to put Bernier in net Thursday against the Phoenix Coyotes while he was "nursing an ailment," so Reimer got the call and won in a shootout. Bernier was able to serve as the backup.

Given how well Reimer played versus Phoenix, making 34 saves and a couple more in the shootout, it probably won't matter if Bernier is healthy enough to start. More than likely Reimer will make his third straight start.

And the National Post's Michael Traikos noted that both Leaf goalies possess stellar stats...Mostly:

Nearly three months into the season, the two goalies are still splitting the net almost equally. Bernier has started 20 games; Reimer has started 17 games. From their goals-against average (2.53 for Bernier and 2.69 for Reimer) to their save percentage (.925 for Bernier and .928 for Reimer) the two goalies have been nearly identical — one of the few areas where the Leafs have received consistency.

“I think leadership is a hard thing to define. But when you look at our goaltending, they’ve been leading our hockey club in performance and leading by example,” Carlyle said. “They’re coming in and playing close to their highest level they’ve ever played in. You’d have to say they’re having career years."

While Carlyle said both goalies are having career years, Bernier and Reimer’s numbers have trending downwards since the start of the season. In October, Bernier had a .933 save percentage and Reimer had a .949 save percentage; in November their respective save percentages dropped to .923 and .916; this month, they are .915 and .920.

Bernier would not use sharing the net as an excuse, but he seemed to wonder aloud what his numbers would really look like if he had 100% control.

“It’s much easier to get in a groove when you’re playing and you don’t think about who’s going to play,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m having a bad year, but I’ve got to find that consistency to be great every night. Once you start playing more and you feel it’s your net, you don’t think about your game, you just go out there and play, which makes it a lot easier.”

As the Canadian Press's Whyno noted, this really is a "getting to know you" game, despite the pair of preseason games between the organizations and the annual preseason fight in the Joe Louis Arena stands (so you thought the scrap on Thursday was a one-off? Oh no, it happens three or four times a year) excluded:

It’s a dress rehearsal of sorts for the NHL’s regular-season showcase event, but more than anything else it’s a chance for the teams to get acquainted in their first matchup since Jan. 7, 2012.

“It’ll be good, especially probably on the special teams, how they play their power play and PK and what we can do to take advantage of that,” Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson said.

Gunnarsson is one of just nine Leafs players who were in uniform for that 2012 meeting and are expected to play Saturday night. One of those is now-Red Wings goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, who joins just seven Detroit players who are still around from that game.

Some of it is turnover but it’s also partially the result of injuries that have ravaged the Red Wings, who are missing a handful of regulars including Henrik Zetterberg (back), Johan Franzen (concussion), Justin Abdelkader (concussion) and Jimmy Howard (knee).

With some players nearing returns, like Detroit defenceman Danny DeKeyser, Toronto goaltender James Reimer cautioned that this really isn’t a straight preview of the Winter Classic.

“It’s a different team than what you might see in a week or two,” Reimer said.

That’s true for the Leafs as well, given that centre Tyler Bozak is eligible to come off long-term injured reserve Dec. 29 after missing almost a month with an oblique strain.

The Toronto Star's Dave Feschuk noted that the Leafs have improved defensively of late...

[S]ince exposing their goalies to back-to-back 50-shot barrages a couple of weeks back, Toronto has begun to turn around one of the season’s negative trends. In seven games since those duelling 50-shot surrenderings, the Leafs have outshot their opponents three times — this from a team that outshot its opponents three times in its opening 30 games. Considering two of those teams were the L.A. Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, it qualifies as significant progress.

Why does shot differential matter? As Randy Robles of the Elias Sports Bureau has pointed out in this space, no post-1967-expansion team has made the playoffs with a shot differential of minus-8 or worse. The Leafs, who at their worst have seen theirs in the negative double digits, have whittled it back down to a more respectable (but still concerning) minus-8.7. More to the point, in the past seven games opponents have averaged 30.7 shots a game. Toronto has averaged 29.5 shots.

What’s changed?

“We changed a few things in the (defensive) zone. We’re a little bit more aggressive. And I don’t know about the stats, but it feels like we’ve got some more blocked shots,” said Carl Gunnarsson. “It was too tough on the goalies. Where we are right now, keeping it down around 30 (shots against), that’s OK. We can improve more, of course. But it’s better.”

But their special teams are trending the opposite way of Detroit's:

If their defensive-zone work has become more consistent, there’s at least one other weak spot that has been looking better of late. The penalty kill, still fourth-worst in the league, has allowed just one goal in the past four games — this after going on an abysmal nine-game run in which it allowed at least one goal a game (and two or more goals on four occasions).

What else needs improving? Go no further than the first line, which has gone goal-less in five of the past seven games. All of Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk have precisely one goal apiece over the same span. If Carlyle hasn’t chastised his big guns for the slump, he spent part of Friday offering a strong hint at what he expects from his top forward unit.

“You can classify the great players in the league — there isn’t a lot of motivation that takes place from outside sources. The motivation is built from within. We’re always trying to build that box within our players, and understand that the great players in the league find ways to continually rise to the occasion,” Carlyle said. “Whatever situation they’re presented with, they overcome what’s going on, all the other things that are going on around them, and focus on what their task is and what their job is.”

I could only find one listing of the Leafs' lines from Friday, and that came via a Tweet from The Fan 590's David Alter:

If you want to go into further detail regarding the Leafs' forwards, TSN 1050's Jonas Siegel penned an article about Mason Raymond's play, TSN posted a video highlighting the quips and quotes from Friday's practice, Sportsnet profiled Reimer's rebound from a 3-1 loss to Florida on Tuesday (Florida: HBO's breakout team?) and noted Carlyle's warm and fuzzy comment about his goaltending, and the Leafs' website posted clips of Reimer, Jay McClement, Gunnarsson and Bernier speaking with the media, you may most certainly do so.

I'd rather pass along this set of personnel notes from the Toronto Sun's Lance Hornby...

There didn’t appear to be any line changes imminent for the Leafs on Saturday after Paul Ranger and Mark Fraser sat again ... Centre Tyler Bozak looks almost ready to play from an abdominal injury but isn’t eligible to return until after Christmas ... Winger Jerry D’Amigo says his family near Binghamton N.Y., may drive the three hours to Manhattan to see him play at the famous Madison Square Garden if it looks like he’ll play Monday.

As well as Carlyle's take on the importance of tonight's game, per Hornby:

The injury-riddled Wings and the wayward Leafs meet Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre, neither playing up to the level of ‘Classic’ to which their New Year’s Day match in Ann Arbor, Mich., has been billed.

Both clubs had worrisome losing streaks up to their shootout victories on Thursday and have shared the often unwanted attention of HBO’s 24/7 cameras swirling about the past couple of weeks. The build-up to the Winter Classic is quickly usurping the four games still on Toronto’s schedule, so Saturday serves as an appetizer.

“I just look at it as an important game on our schedule,” said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle of the two points separating the clubs. “Detroit has a lot depth on their club and a tradition of winning. We’ve had our challenges of late and are trying to use (Thursday’s 2-1 win over Phoenix) as a starting point to build something.”

...

More than 10 combined regulars on both teams are out at present and some could miss the Classic, as well. Detroit had lost six straight before beating Calgary on Thursday. After his team lost 10 of 13 games, Carlyle seemed to hit on the right lineup Thursday. He enjoyed improved efforts from Clarkson, a rare goal from the fourth line (Troy Bodie) and a general compete level that had been missing.

Carlyle wanted his team to win more “50-50” puck battles and they did so Thursday.

“That’s part of building that box within,” Carlyle said. “The motivation is built within. The great players in the league find ways to continually rise to the occasion. We have to continue to try and keep things to the outside. One thing we have to concentrate on are the positives of defensive zone coverage. You’ll win a lot of games if your keep your goals against to one.”

The Toronto Sun's Mark Zwolinski penned something of a game preview in offering "Five Things to Know About the Red Wings"...

1. Like the Leafs, Detroit has been struggling under the glare of the Winter Classic spotlight. Both teams have lost close games while HBO records their every move for the 24/7 Road to the Winter Classic series. Detroit did down Calgary on Thursday, but needed a power-play goal in overtime to do it. Daniel Alfredsson, public enemy No. 1 in Leafs Nation, scored the OT winner, his second goal of the game, as Detroit snapped a six-game losing skid. “We were hanging in, playing some good hockey, then all of a sudden we had some lapses and were giving the other team way too many good scoring chances,” Alfredsson said, summing up the Wings’ performances of late.

2. Alfredsson has 700 assists in a wonderful career. It will be interesting to see the reaction Saturday at the Air Canada Centre, then at the Winter Classic when he faces the Leafs before an estimated crowd of around 110,000. Leafs Nation boos him relentlessly any time he touches the puck against Toronto — even in Ottawa when he was captain of the Senators, with Leaf fans packing the house. It was the only rink in the NHL where a home team captain would hear that.

3. Ex-Leaf Jonas Gustavsson, the Monster, has been playing extremely well as coach Mike Babcock juggles his goalies (No. 1 Jimmy Howard is out with a knee injury, but had been an occasional healthy scratch before that). Gustavsson has nine wins on the season and may get the start Saturday.

4. Detroit has recalled agitator Jordin Tootoo, who has spent much of the season in the AHL. Injuries have struck the Wings hard with as many as eight regulars either on long- term injured reserve (including captain Henrik Zetterberg) or nursing day-to-day pains.

5. Wings owner Mike Ilitch and the city of Detroit are close to settling an outstanding debt which may pave the way for a new arena in downtown Detroit. The city has said the Ilitch family owes as much as $80 million in back taxes from cable TV revenue that was tied to an amendment of the Joe Louis Arena deal in 1980. It now appears the sides have settled on about $6 million.

Please see Friday's City Council meeting post for a summary of that issue.

NHL.com's John Kreiser's "Daily Primer" also focuses on tonight's game as the marquee match-up amongst 12 games' worth of Fa Ra Ra...

The next time the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs get together, they'll do it in front of about 107,000 fans outdoors at Michigan Stadium. For the dress rehearsal to the Jan. 1 Bridgestone 2014 NHL Winter Classic, "only" 19,000 or so fans will pack Air Canada Centre on Saturday night.

The Original Six rivals will face each other for the first time since Jan. 7, 2012. They're coming into the game off slump-breaking victories two nights earlier: Toronto beat the Phoenix Coyotes 2-1 in a shootout; Detroit defeated the Calgary Flames 3-2 in overtime.

The cameras that are following both teams for HBO's "24/7" series will be in evidence on both sides, though the players will try to ignore them.

"I don't think we're focusing on the Winter Classic as a group, we're focusing on tomorrow's game with Detroit," said Toronto goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who's optimistic he'll be able to dress despite a lower-body injury. "I think right now as a team we need those wins, and [Thursday] night was a really big win for our confidence. We can be happy but not satisfied, because we haven't won too many games lately."

...

Detroit Red Wings at Toronto Maple Leafs -- This figures to be a special game for Detroit goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, who's expected to get the start. It would be his first appearance against the team he played for in his first three NHL seasons. He's 9-3-2 with the Red Wings this season. The Red Wings should also get a boost from the return of defenseman Danny DeKeyser, who's missed 14 games with a shoulder injury. Toronto coach Randy Carlyle is trying to downplay the "24/7" and Winter Classic hype, saying Friday that this is just "another game on our schedule" and that he wants to build on the shootout victory against the Coyotes on Thursday.

And NHL.com's Corey Masisak penned a balanced preview of tonight's affair:

Season series: This is the first of four games between the teams. The Maples Leafs have won three of the past four against the Detroit Red Wings, who have lost four straight (0-3-1) since last winning at Air Canada Centre, on Nov. 16, 2002.

...

Red Wings [team scope]: Detroit has been hampered at times this season by injuries, and at times the Red Wings have been decimated by them. Recently, it's been more of the latter. Detroit has been short six of its top nine forwards, a top-four defenseman and its starting goaltender, Jimmy Howard.

The result was six straight losses before a 3-2 overtime victory Thursday night against the Calgary Flames. Detroit had three young forwards who started the year in the American Hockey League, Luke Glendening, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan, in the lineup, but it was veterans Daniel Alfredsson and Pavel Datsyuk who played roles in all three goals.

Maple Leafs [team scope]: Toronto has had injuries as well, especially at the team's shallowest position. There were questions about the team's skill and depth at center before the season began, and coach Randy Carlyle has tried wing James van Riemsdyk in the middle a couple of times to compensate. Having two of the four centers they began the season with and one of the original replacements out of the lineup has been problematic to say the least.

Even with a healthy lineup, there were advanced statistics that suggested Toronto's hot start (10-4-0) would not last, and it has not. The Maple Leafs are 8-12-3 since then, though they did top the Phoenix Coyotes in a shootout Thursday. They have one win in regulation (a surprising 7-3 thumping of the Chicago Blackhawks) since Nov. 19.

Who's hot: Alfredsson has four points in his past four games. … Toronto goaltender James Reimer has stopped 138 of 148 shots (.932 save percentage) in his past four starts, but has two wins to show for it.

Injury report: Detroit defenseman Danny DeKeyser (shoulder) is expected to come off the long list of injured Red Wings to play against the Maple Leafs. Captain Henrik Zetterberg (back) told reporters he hopes to return Dec. 28 against the Florida Panthers. General manager Ken Holland told Detroit Sports 105.1-FM that Howard (knee) could return for the Winter Classic or the game prior, on Dec. 30 against the Nashville Predators. Holland also said Darren Helm (shoulder) could return Monday. The rest of the injured list includes forwards Justin Abdelkader (head), Stephen Weiss (groin), Johan Franzen (concussion) and Gustav Nyquist (groin). … Toronto centers Tyler Bozak (upper body), Dave Bolland (ankle) and Trevor Smith (hand) are out, along with right wing Colton Orr (elbow). Jonathan Bernier (lower body) is day-to-day.

So yeah, the Wings have a crapton of injuries.

The AP/Stats LLC's preview also offers...stats....

Detroit's roller-coaster season has hit another dip over the past two weeks, as the Red Wings (16-12-9) have gone 1-4-2 in their last seven. Offensive struggles have been the biggest culprit, with Detroit totaling 12 goals in that span.

The injury-ravaged Wings topped the two-goal mark for the first time in this stretch Thursday, with Daniel Alfredsson scoring his second goal of the game in overtime on a power play for a 3-2 victory over Calgary. Detroit ended a nine-game OT losing streak as well as its six-game overall skid.

...

The Wings will now be trying to get on another hot streak in this up-and-down season. They won five of six Nov. 24-Dec. 1 before the current slump and went 1-3-5 prior to that surge.

Toronto's slump has been a bit more prolonged than Detroit's. The Leafs (18-16-3) have dropped five of seven and are 4-8-2 in their last 14.

Like the Wings, they earned a much-needed victory Thursday by defeating Phoenix 2-1 in a shootout behind James Reimer, who made 34 saves.

...

Lupul and James van Riemsdyk scored in the shootout for Toronto, which has managed one non-shootout goal in each of its past three games.

The Leafs employed a harder forecheck and more aggressive defensive zone play, though they were outshot 35-27 and 30-19 after the first period.

In terms of the Wings' level of play going into tonight's game, the Windsor Star's Bob Duff will kick off the Wings-related portion of this game preview with some delayed quotes from Thursday's 3-2 OT win over Calgary, with Duff attempting to frame them in light of tonight's match-up...

“We’re not playing our best,” Detroit right-winger Daniel Alfredsson said. “We know we’re struggling. There’s a lot of pressure on us and it takes more energy than normal.”

With eight regulars out of their lineup via injury, including captain Henrik Zetterberg, No. 1 goalie Jimmy Howard and power forward Johan Franzen, the Wings have been scratching and clawing through games and for the most part, not coming up with much to show for their efforts.

“Our captain Zetterberg is a hard-headed guy,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. “He’s got stick-to-itiveness and we miss that part of his game so other guys have to step up.”

A similar malady has affected the Leafs, who’ve lost centres Tyler Bozak, David Bolland and Trevor Smith to injury, all playing a role in what’s been a 4-8-1-1 slide.

“There’s a frustration level that goes with not having success,” Toronto coach Randy Carlyle said. “Players are frustrated, the coaching staff is frustrated and I’m sure management is frustrated. I’m sure our fans are frustrated. Is it a crisis? It’s a crisis that we haven’t won enough games.”

Minus much of their skill, both teams recognize that work ethic and effort must go a longer way in order to achieve any continued level of success, but on many nights, that’s been lacking.

“We either have guys, or half the team, or the full team, that only show up in parts,” Leafs goalie James Reimer said. “I don’t know if there’s any specific reason, but we have to find a way to bring it for 60 minutes. It takes a collective effort to get out of a slump and right now, we’re not putting 60 minutes together.”

The Red Wings received mostly good news on the injury front on Friday, as the Macomb Daily's Chuck Pleiness noted...

Danny DeKeyser appears to be ready to return to the lineup after missing the last 15 games with an injured shoulder.

“I feel good,” DeKeyser said after practice. “I should be good to go. I’m excited. It’s been awhile since I’ve played, a little over a month, but it seems longer than that so I’m just ready to get back at it.”

DeKeyser has two goals and seven assists in 22 games this season.

“I’ve just got to get up to game speed,” DeKeyser said. “It’s been awhile since I’ve played so I’m going to do my best to play as well as I was playing when I got hurt so that’s what I’m going to try to do. Sitting around all the time makes it seem longer than a month that I’ve been out.”

All of the Wings’ injured players skated Friday, expect for Jimmy Howard (knee) and Johan Franzen (concussion).

“Dekeyser’s available tomorrow, we’ll see at the morning skate,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “I mean I had 17 forwards on the ice the biggest group I’ve ever had since I’ve been here by far. That’s good and the other thing that’s important is you need competition for jobs. To be a real good team you need competition for jobs and then you got to get guys to embrace the internal competition that makes you a better player.”

As it looked in practice, Darren Helm (shoulder) appeared as if he was playing, skating on a line with Riley Sheahan and Daniel Alfredsson, but he said afterwards he didn’t think he was in.

“I’ve got no idea,” Babcock said when asked about the lineup he would go with against the Leafs. “The general manager and I will sit together on the plane after we talk to the medical people and we’ll do the math.”

But MLive's Ansar Khan suggested that the Wings shouldn't expect any forward reinforcements...

Darren Helm (sprained shoulder) skated on a line with Daniel Alfredsson and Riley Sheahan in practice Friday, but said afterward that he doesn’t think he’ll be ready to play Saturday. He is aiming to return Monday at home against the New York Islanders.

Gustav Nyquist skated for the first time since he hurt his groin on Sunday but said he doesn’t think he’ll be ready to play Saturday.

“We waited until I felt good and had good strength,” Nyquist said. “We’ll see if it starts to hurt or aches after the skate; that’s the big test. Still day-to-day.”

He noted that the Wings have no cap issues at present--and given the time it's taken to figure out what's wrong with Stephen Weiss, it sounds like the LTIR is going to take care of cap issues for some time to come...

The Red Wings don't need to make a move to activate DeKeyser from long-term injured reserve because Henrik Zetterberg is on LTIR.

And Khan posted the following prospective lineup:

Todd Bertuzzi-Pavel Datsyuk-Tomas Jurco

Darren Helm-Riley Sheahan-Daniel Alfredsson

Drew Miller-Joakim Andersson-Tomas Tatar

Daniel Cleary-Luke Glendening-Patrick Eaves

Also skating were Jordin Tootoo, Mikael Samuelsson, Justin Abdelkader and Zetterberg (out until Dec. 28 with herniated disc). Johan Franzen (concussion) was not on the ice with the team. Stephen Weiss (groin) was scheduled to see a specialist today in Philadelphia.

All seven defensemen skated, changing pairs frequently.

Most of Friday's practice chatter surrounded Jonas Gustavsson's start against his former team, per Khan...

Gustavsson is sporting the best statistics of his career (9-3-2, 2.25 goals-against average, .920 save percentage), but no chip on his shoulder from his days as a Maple Leaf.

“You always want to be successful for an organization for a long time,” Gustavsson said. “I enjoyed living in Toronto, had a lot of good teammates. But I think both (sides) felt it was time to move on. For me it was time to find another challenge. For them it was probably good to move on, too.”

His time in Toronto was bittersweet.

“It was my first few years over here, so it was a lot of learning,” said Gustavsson, who signed a two-year, $3 million deal with Detroit on July 1, 2012. “We didn’t make the playoffs; that was a disappointment. For myself, right away I got a chance to play a lot of games, get some experience. That was really good for me. I had some good stretches and not so good stretches. It was a learning period for me.”

And again, Gustavsson's assessment of the Toronto media bubble was spot-on:

“I think it’s even tougher for Canadians who have families and kids,” Gustavsson said. “So much more to think about. For me, coming over from Sweden, I put a lot of pressure on myself, so I didn’t feel any extra pressure.

“Maybe you’d feel it if you read everything that was said about you, watched hockey on TV, which was on 24/7 there. But I like to do other stuff when I’m not playing hockey. The only difference I feel is, when you do an interview, here you have five (media) guys, there you had 25 guys.”

Babcock also offered quite the quip regarding the Wings' sudden abundance of forwards to the Detroit News's Ted Kulfan...

“The biggest crop I’ve ever had since I’ve been here,” coach Mike Babcock said. “That’s good. It’s important, you need competition for jobs. To be a real good team, you need competition for jobs and you need guys to embrace the internal competition. That makes you a better player.”

Forwards Darren Helm (shoulder) and Gustav Nyquist (groin) both are questionable for Toronto, but could play as early as Monday against the New York Islanders.

“We’ll see if it hurts after the skate, that’s the big test,” Nyquist said.

Henrik Zetterberg (herniated disc) and Justin Abdelkader (concussion) both skated also, but neither is expected to return until the first game after Christmas on Dec. 28 in Florida.

And Kulfan took note of Weiss's murky status:

Forward Stephen Weiss was expected to see a groin specialist Friday in Philadelphia for a second opinion.

Weiss missed five games because of the groin issue last month, returned, but was forced out of the lineup again last week by the problem. There’s a possibility he will need surgery.

As I recall, the groin specialist in Philadelphia is, well, per the Google, Dr. William Meyers, who worked on Chris Osgood and Kris Draper.

The Detroit Free Press's George Sipple also noted that sitting and sitting and sitting some more has Mikael Samuelsson down...

Mikael Samuelsson, who was a healthy scratch on Thursday, admitted that his confidence is down. He has three points in 21 games this season.

“That’s what I need most of all,” Samuelsson said, referring to confidence. “You can say, ‘Oh yeah, you have to skate faster, you’ve got to battle harder.’ Yeah, absolutely. I haven’t played my best hockey. But it has its reasons too, but I don’t want to comment on that. I just have to take it one day at a time.”

Is his confidence down?

“Right now? Yeah, it is,” he said. “No question about it.”

And Babcock praising a goaltender--in this case Gustavsson--is a coach venturing into territory that he rarely treaded upon during the first part of his tenure with the Wings:

“I thought he played good,” Babcock said. “Gus has been really good for us. He’s had very few off nights or average nights, to say the least. He’s got confidence. He gives our team confidence. He’s done an excellent job for us. We’re thrilled with the job he’s done for us. We’re not scared of Petr (Mrazek) one bit either, but Gus has earned the right to play.”

DetroitRedWings.com's Andrea Nelson also offered a diverse notebook's worth of tidbits and storylines...

HOMECOMING: Toronto native Brendan Smith will play in his first regular-season NHL game in his hometown Saturday. The defenseman grew up 10-minutes from Air Canada Centre, and is looking forward to seeing friends and family at the game during the holidays.

“It’ll be real exciting getting to go home and play, especially around Christmastime,” he said, “because there will be a lot of family and friends watching.”

INJURY UPDATE: Gustav Nyquist skated for the first time since sustaining a groin injury last Sunday against Tampa Bay. Although he feels healthy, the forward is still day-to-day and doesn’t expect to play Saturday.

“Whenever it feels 100 percent,” Nyquist said, “that’s my best answer to you of when I’ll be back. We’ve got to see within the next few hours after a good skate, if it flares up or if I feel anything we’ll take care of it and make a decision from there.”

Center Darren Helm was back on the ice after missing Thursday’s practice with the flu, and hopes to return from his shoulder injury Monday when the Red Wings host the New York Islanders.

“I think it’s kind of day-to-day still,” he said, “and just see how it feels in the next couple, hopefully in quick. Hopefully I wake up tomorrow and it feels great too.”

And yes, the Wings did get around to talking about playing the Maple Leafs for the first time since 2012, and the whole Winter Classic Warm-Up of Doom chatter, as noted by the Detroit News's Kulfan...

"Fans enjoy the Original Six rivalries,” forward Daniel Cleary said. “Detroit-Toronto has a lot of history. The build-up will be fun for this game. It’ll be fun, a good precursor to the Winter Classic.”

...

Because these Original Six rivals have played so rarely during the regular season in recent years — they have met regularly only in the exhibition season — it might take a playoff series to get the blood boiling again in this ancient rivalary Right now, there’s almost a sense of curiosity.

“I feel like hate is built through an incident or playoffs,” Cleary said. “We haven’t even played these guys in years. It doesn’t work like that (instant rivalary). It’s built over time and through playoffs, that drives rivalries. You see a team in the playoffs, then see them again the next year. We have teams that we have rivalries with (that way, San Jose, Anaheim, Nashville).”

...

Saturday night, ‘Hockey Night in Canada,’ we got that channel,” said defenseman Danny DeKeyser, who was a regular viewer growing up in Macomb. “I was watching those Leafs games. There’s so much history between these teams. It’ll be a fun match-up.”

And important for both teams in the sense both have been struggling, plagued with injuries to key players, and attempting to maintain their playoff positioning in the divisional standings.

“It’s a huge game for us,” Cleary said. “We want to build off a big win for us (against Calgary) and obviously seeing them (the Leafs) in 10 or 11 days, it’ll be fresh. But certainly we want to go out and play well and set the tone. This will be an important game heading into the (Christmas) break.”

And we may as well let the Wings' coach take us out after dealing with Carlyle's bluster, via MLive's Khan:

“Now we can get started,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “We haven’t had a rivalry (with Toronto) since I’ve been here in nine years because we never played each other.”

This will be their first meeting in more than 23 months, since Toronto’s 4-3 victory at home on Jan. 7, 2012. The Maple Leafs have won five of their past seven games against the Red Wings, dating back to Dec. 6, 2003.

...

The Red Wings snapped a six-game winless streak (0-4-2) with a 3-2 overtime victory over the Calgary Flames on Thursday.

“Just the energy level in practice today, you can feel it,” Babcock said. “I mean that’s just the way life is. But you got to earn the right to feel good about yourself; you got to play real well, technically or structurally, you got to work real hard. I thought our guys did that. It took us a lot to be rewarded, but full marks for their effort."

Okay, okay, players too:

“We’re pretty tight in the standings,” Red Wings goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, a former Maple Leaf, said. “It’s one of those teams we want to get a good win over, be ahead of. That’s a team that’s really competing to make the playoffs. We’re one of those teams, too. It’s a big game, important points.”

...

“They’re right behind us, so getting points against them helps us out a lot,” Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith said. “It’s like a four-point swing. We have been struggling a little bit lately but we made some strides the last game and will continue to do that.”

 

 

Also of Red Wings-related note:

In the alumni department, part 1: I can't embed it, but Darren McCarty spoke with Kalamazoo's WWMT for nearly four minutes, discussing his memoir, My Last Fight: the True Story of a Hockey Rock Star;

In the alumni department, part 2: Mark Howe also spoke with the Philadelphia Inquirer's Sam Carchidi about his memoir, Gordie Howe's Son: A Hall of Fame Life Lived in the Shadow of Mr. Hockey, and Howe gives due credit to his co-author, Jay Greenberg:

"The credit goes to Jay; my toughest job was just to remember stuff," said Howe, who is the Detroit Red Wings' director of pro scouting. "I think he got a feel for where I was coming from, and then during the lockout [last season], we had a lot of spare time. Once a week, I'd head up to his house and he'd have a list of questions and he'd try to incorporate it."

Howe, a quiet sort, said it was ironic that he is the one who rejected the initial sample chapter written by Greenberg, who went into the Hall of Fame last month.

"I laugh because here I am, basically a high school dropout, and here's Jay with all his writing accolades, and I'm telling him I didn't like how the story read," Howe said. "Basically, I said that I read it and I'm confused, and it's my life. It was hard for me to say that to him, but I felt I had to do it, and right after I said that, Jay said he instantly knew what I was talking about and he quickly adapted."

Howe writes about being a member of a typical middle-class family during his youth, living in a tiny ranch house in northwest Detroit - even though his dad happened to be the best hockey player on the planet. When Mark was born in 1955, his dad earned $10,000, which is worth $86,000 today, when the minimum NHL salary is $525,000.

"A wealth of pride was the only wealth into which I was born," Howe wrote, and the chapter on his youth feels like a montage of episodes from the old Wonder Years TV show.

In the present-day and probably future Wings department, NHL.com's Brian Hedger penned a superb profile of Tomas Jurco:

"Sometimes it's easier to produce when you're under the radar and they're looking at somebody else," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told NHL.com. "What I like about him this year is that, based upon his [AHL] rookie year last year, based upon his junior career, based upon his skills, we were looking for him to take a step forward in his all-around game. We wanted to see him putting points on the board but being good defensively and cycling the puck. I think he's done that."

Prior to his call-up Jurco had 11 goals and 27 points in 26 games for the Griffins, who again are one of the AHL's best teams. Last season Jurco finished the regular season with 28 points (14 goals, 14 assists) in 74 games and then had eight goals and six assists in 24 playoff games.

"I think I've gotten much better at [driving the net]," said Jurco, who scored his first NHL goal Tuesday in a 5-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks. "Since I had a pretty good season last year and this year, those [puck] tricks come up less on YouTube. The more points I get, everybody keeps forgetting about that, which is a good thing. I don't like to be known as only as a YouTube sensation."

Jurco's play as a professional, though raw in areas, has proven otherwise. Teammates occasionally might give him some ribbing about the puck tricks video, but they also know what Jurco is capable of doing in games.

"That's some skill set right there," 23-year old forward Tomas Tatar said, nodding toward Jurco. "He can use his size too. It's something new for him to play in the NHL, so I bet he's really excited to be here. The best thing for him and all the [AHL call-ups] is just to stay as long as you can up here, be around and hang out with [the veterans]."

...

Other teams might keep a player like Jurco on their NHL roster, but Detroit prefers to keep its prospects in the minors until they are more than ready for a permanent spot. One way or another, Jurco should be playing in an outdoor game soon -- either the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium on Jan. 1, 2014, or the one Grand Rapids will play at Comerica Park on New Year's Eve remains to be seen.

"It just takes time," Holland told NHL.com. "He's a young player. We think he's an NHL player. I think he's got the potential, and we hear this all the time, to be a top-six forward. But it's a process. Maybe if he plays well he might stay here, but realistically at some point in time we'd like to get him back [to the AHL]. I want him to be an important part of Grand Rapids."

And this FYI from Yahoo Sports' Nicholas J. Cotsonika's worth mentioning for those of you who think you're going to be shut out of the Alumni Showdown:

The Hockeytown Winter Festival is ambitious – days of outdoor events at Comerica Park leading up to the Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium. The Detroit Red Wings have sold at least 20,000 tickets for each day of college, junior, minor-league and alumni games, but they have not sold out anything yet, including the alumni showdown. They were hoping to get a bump when Steve Yzerman committed to the roster, but they are still at about 30,000. The Winter Classic is sold out and will draw more than 100,000.

Again, I know someone who needs to sell two tickets to the GLI and Winter Classic itself:

Great Lakes Invitational on Friday, December 27th (Comerica section 147, row S, seats 5 &6) and the Winter Classic itself (Big House section 12, row 86, seats 15 & 16) and that person simply wants to break even on the tickets--$364 face value--and wants to be reimbursed via Paypal. If you are interested please email me at georgemalik at kuklaskorner dot com.

We're having a very hard time getting any "nibbles." Face value ain't bad...

And finally, as an FYI: I am going to do the best that I can to cover today's game, but I have to leave at 4:30-ish for the family Christmas party, and I won't be back until 10:30-ish.

I'll end up watching 24/7 with the mom--I will be very brief regarding the episode--and I may just offer a "quick take" depending on how I feel energy-wise (and a third of an inch of ice and sleet is scheduled to fall in Southeastern Michigan today).

It sucks to miss the lead-up-to-the-Winter-Classic game, and I'll at least watch the FSD replay, but family has to come first.

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Comments

Avatar

Saturday night in Toronto on Hockey Night in Canada. I don’t care if half the teams injured. I expect compleate domination. This is the type of game the Wings always show up for. After this one we will know if Cleary has anything left. This isn’t just another game. All Newf will be watching. Gus the groin better get the start. He has something to prove and he deserves it. All Northern Canada will be watching. A chance to show Tootoo some apreciation for keeping his mouth shut when he was waived and benched. Best served up on a line with Helm and Eaves.

Posted by leftwing on 12/21/13 at 07:22 AM ET

alwaysaurie's avatar

Looking forward to this game, I’ll probably flip between the Wings’ coverage and HNIC.

HOping that Datsyuk’s line(s) produce as well tonight as they did Thursday… even better if they do so when Jurco is with Datsyuk this time.

My other hope is that the talk of Kindl sitting are misguided, I’ve been longing to see Kindl/DeKeyser reunited for a month now.

Posted by alwaysaurie on 12/21/13 at 09:21 AM ET

Avatar

Huge game tonight but Xmas party conflict, too. Will have to record it. Agree this is a real litmus test for both teams, and determines who moves to 7th (vs someone beatable) or 8th (vs Penguins) in the conference.

Posted by manitobaredwingfan on 12/21/13 at 10:50 AM ET

redxblack's avatar

Happy Solstice, George! Thanks for another great write-up.  LGRW!! !!!

Posted by redxblack from Akron Ohio on 12/21/13 at 02:25 PM ET

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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.