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Red Wings-Capitals set-up: Winning within 65 minutes is imperative

The Detroit Red Wings are approaching fully healthy status (minus Patrick Eaves and Ruslan Salei) as they face off against the injury-depleted Washington Capitals tonight (7:30 PM, Versus/WXYT), but the Capitals possess both a nearly identical record to Detroit’s 40-20-and-8, with 41 total wins thanks to a 9-game winning streak punctuated by a 4-2 victory over Monteral on Tuesday, and the Capitals are actually a much better defensive team than the Wings, boasting a team-averaged 2.33 goals-against average to the Wings’ 2.79. It’s the Wings that are the better offensive team, however, boasting 3.19 goals scored per game compared to the Caps’ 2.63.

As far as the Wings are concerned, however, none of those statistics, streaks or any sort of intimidation factor the Caps might bring into Joe Louis Arena matter. The Wings are only concerned about the fact that they’ve got 3 games remaining (and four over the next six nights), and while they’re not going to catch the Vancouver Canucks for first overall in the West, the team’s 40 wins and 90 points are good for only a 2-point lead over the 3rd-place San Jose Sharks and a 5-point lead over the Los Angeles Kings and the Phoenix Coyotes, who represent the tip of the iceberg that’s constituted by the 9 teams separated by only 11 total points.

Put simply, the Wings want to earn home-ice advantage in the first and possibly second rounds of the playoffs, and to achieve this feat, the Wings have to embrace a notorious celebrity’s mantra and focus on nothing more and nothing less than, “Winning”—while doing so in 65 or less minutes of play. Fox Sports Detroit’s Ken Daniels keeps reminding us that teams’ regulation and overtime wins will take precidence over shootout wins in breaking ties in playoff seeding, too, and as the Wings have four shootout wins, things could get hairy in a hurry.

For the Capitals, tonight’s game represents an opportunity to keep the good times rolling.  Despite the fact that center Jason Arnott’s (lower-body injury) out for tonight’s game, as ate winger Alex Semin (knee) and defenseman Mike Green (, forwardNiklas Backstrom (thumb), defenseman Tom Poti (groin) and goaltender Seymon Varlamov (knee) are “questionable” for tonight…

And despite the fact that, as the Washington Post’s Katie Carrera notes, the Capitals lost another player in Montreal…

[Coach Bruce] Boudreau said [right wing] Eric Fehr, who left the game after Montreal’s second goal was scored and only played 5:16, suffered an upper-body injury. Fehr is day-to-day following the injury which occurred in only his fourth game back from a 22-contest layoff because of a dislocated shoulder.

“We’ll see how it is tomorrow morning,” Boudreau said. “We were told to keep him out today and the rest of the game and we’ll see in the morning.”

The Caps are doing what the Wings couldn’t when the injury bug struck earlier this season. They’re not just treading water—as Carrera points out, they’re stringing together wins like a well-oiled machine:

Marcus Johansson scored a pair of goals and Brooks Laich added another to fuel a 4-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre. The Capitals improved to 92 points on the season and trail Philadelphia by one point for first place in the Eastern Conference.

“Those two guys being out — one, somebody’s got to pick up the slack, but also it’s an opportunity for somebody else,” said Laich, who along with Johansson stepped up in the absence of Nicklas Backstrom and Jason Arnott. “You get a little more ice and you try to make the most of it.”

Rookie Braden Holtby, making his fourth consecutive start, fought through arguably his most unsteady performance since he was recalled on March 3. The Capitals were gifted a 1-0 lead just 66 seconds into the game when Canadiens goaltender Carey Price watched a puck he expected to wrap behind the net deflect off the glass and straight out to Johansson for a tap-in goal. But 20 seconds later, Holtby couldn’t get back into position after trying to clear the puck up the boards, and Travis Moen evened the score at 1.

“I got off to a bit of a rough start, a bad decision on my part,” said Holtby, who finished with 24 saves. “It could have easily been six or seven goals if my defense wouldn’t have been so good with passes across on odd-man rushes and what-not. The credit goes all to them tonight.”

A would-be go-ahead goal by Matt Hendricks was disallowed on video review 2 minutes 6 seconds into the game even though replays showed the puck cross the goal line before the net was dislodged. Things began to settle down after that, and the Capitals started to establish themselves in the offensive zone. They took control of the pace by clogging the neutral zone and spending a lopsided amount of time in the offensive zone. Washington peppered Price with 41 shots, 33 in the first two periods.

Comcast Sportsnet Washington’s Ryan O’Halloran suggests that the Capitals’ injury replacements have done a superb job of filling in for their more-heralded teammates…

Observations from the Capitals’ 4-2 win over Montreal Tuesday night, which extended Washington’s winning streak to nine games (and tied the franchise record with six straight on the road) and its Southeast Division lead to five points:

1. Another night, another win, another slew of individual standouts. Marcus Johansson scored twice. Brooks Laich moved up to first-line center and scored a cool first period goal when he got around Hal Gill. Center Jay Beagle (for the injured Jason Arnott) and defenseman Tyler Sloan (for the ill John Erskine) stepped into the lineup after long healthy-scratch stretches and didn’t screw things up. And rookie goalie Braden Holtby overcame an early flub to win his fifth game in eight days.

And he suggests that Holtby, who was named the “First Star of the Week” on Monday, steadied himself nicely (it’s hard to know whether Bruce Boudreau will start Holtby or former Plymouth Whalers goaltender Michael Neuvirth, who’s won 22 games to Holtby’s 9 wins)...

No real qualms with Holtby’s effort, which was his fourth straight start for the Capitals. The reigning ‘First Star’ in the NHL looked like he might be a little shaky when he was late getting back into his goal, allowing Travis Moen to score an early equalizer after Johansson’s equally fluky marker. But Holtby settled down from there, stopping 24 of 26 shots. Montreal’s second goal – an Andrei Kostitsyn laser from the high slow – was unstoppable.

The Capitals simply sound like the Wings usually do at this time of year, as noted by the Associated Press’s game recap:

Seven of the Capitals’ wins during the streak have been by one goal.

“If we have a chance to go and score goals we will, but sometimes one mistake can cost a lot,” Ovechkin said. “We’ve talked about it here in the locker room and the most important thing is when you get that lead, you try to protect that lead.”

Braden Holtby, who was named the NHL’s first star of the week on Monday, stopped 24 shots for his fifth straight win.

“We like being in tight games this year and we find a way to get a goal at the right time,” said Brooks Laich, who scored his 16th goal in the first.

The Washington Post’s game thread lists the Caps’ lineup as of yesterday night…

Forwards

Ovechkin-Laich-Semin

Sturm-Johansson-Knuble

Chimera-Beagle-Fehr

Hendricks-Gordon-Bradley

Defense

Alzner-Carlson

Schultz-Wideman

Sloan-Hannan

NHL.com’s John Kriesier allows us to shift our focus to a more neutral glance at how the teams stack up:

Last 10—Washington 9-1-0; Detroit 4-4-2

Season series—It’s the only meeting of the season between the No. 2 teams in the East and West. They haven’t met since Washington won 3-2 at home on Jan. 19, 2010; this is just the third trip by the Caps to Joe Louis Arena since 2003.

Big story—The Caps picked the right time to get hot. They’ve taken control of the Southeast Division and are pressing Philadelphia for the top spot in the East thanks to a winning streak that reached nine games with a 4-2 win at Montreal on Tuesday. The Wings are first in the West but have struggled to win at home—they are 8-10-2 in their last 20 games at The Joe.

The Wings play 8 of their last 13 games at home, so their home winning percentage has to change in a hurry.

Who’s hot—Ovechkin has 12 points during the nine-game winning streak. Braden Holtby, the NHL’s First Star last week, has won the last five games during the streak. … Wings center Pavel Datsyuk had the winning goal in each of Detroit’s last two games, giving him 10 goals and 17 points in 17 games since returning from a broken wrist.
...
Stat pack—Detroit’s Mike Modano has no goals and 3 assists in eight games since returning from a severe wrist injury that costs him three months. …. Eight of the Caps’ nine wins during the streak have been by one goal.

As the Macomb Daily’s Chuck Pleiness notes, Wings coach Mike Babcock was hesitant to reveal whether he’ll reunite Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk during Tuesday’s slate of practice updates, and he did so in an attempt to play coy as to whether he’ll match up one or both against Alex Ovechkin:

Datsyuk centered a line with Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom, while Zetterberg was between Danny Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi. The other lines consisted of Mike Modano, Valtteri Filppula and Justin Abdelkader, while Darren Helm, Jiri Hudler and Kris Draper made up the fourth line.

Babcock also chose to keep the Nicklas Lidstrom (soon to have a street in Novi named after him) and Jonathan Ericsson pairing intact and continue the Niklas Kronwall-Brad Stuart reunion tour…

Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall look as if they were be reunited on the blue line together.

“We’re kind of picking from where we were playing together regularly,” Stuart said.

“Stewie is Stewie,” Kronwall grinned as he looked down four stalls from him where Stuart was sitting. “We’ve had some good chemistry in the past. It’s good to have him on your side.”

Ruslan Salei’s back home in Manhattan Beach, CA with his wife, who’s very overdue to deliver the couple’s third child, so Babcock will probably work Brian Rafalski back into the lineup while giving him third-pair minutes and Jakub Kindl as his partner, probably until Saturday’s game in Nashville or Monday’s game against Pittsburgh. It’s pretty easy to assume that Lidstrom and Kronwall-Stuart will get the nod against Ovechkin’s line.

Patrick Eaves won’t play until Thursday or Saturday as well, and Chris Osgood will back up Jimmy Howard (the league’s leader in goaltending wins with 33), who told Pleiness that he’d like to earn a measure of revenge for a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Team Russia and Ovechkin, who scored a hat trick against Howard over the course of only 40 minutes...

“I didn’t see the third,” laughed Howard, who was 17 years old at the time. “It was a fun game to watch the way they were zipping the puck around the arena and around the zone. It was sort of mesmerizing. I remember his third goal on me, it was a one timer he hit out of the air,” Howard continued. “It was a cross-ice pass, dot-to-dot and it was like, ‘Wow, lineup at center.’”

The Wings spoke very respectfully of the Capitals’ leading scorer, who’s registered an uncharacteristic 28 goals, 48 assists and 76 points thus far…

“He’s got that goal scorers’ touch,” Lidstrom added. “He might be quiet, but whenever he gets a chance he can score. He’s very hard to defend. He’s one of the best ones in the league. He’s for sure one dangerous player.”

Ovechkin, who will be playing at Joe Louis Arena for the third time in his career, has four goals and three assists in five games against Detroit.

“He’s always dangerous,” Brad Stuart said. “It’s a whole team effort to shut him down. It’s not one guy that’s going to do it. We have to be prepared all night long.”
...
“He’s unique in the way that he can do everything,” Niklas Kronwall said. “He’s got an unbelievable slap shot and his wrister has got to one of the best in the league. He can beat you one-on-one, he’s got so much speed. And yet he’s a big and really strong guy. He’s the total package.”

The Wings aren’t just wary of Ovechkin. They told the Free Press’s Helene St. James that they’re well aware of the challenges that the Capitals collectively present...

“They’re playing real well right now as a team,” Nicklas Lidstrom said. “They have the offensive guys that can score goals for them, but I think they’re playing really well defensively, too, and that’s one of the reasons they’re winning right now.”

The Capitals have the NHL’s fourth-best goals-against average at 2.37, showing a commitment to playing well in their zone—that hasn’t been their calling card in recent years. They also were one of the winners at last month’s trade deadline, adding Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm up front and puck-mover Dennis Wideman to the back end.

And for shutting down Ovechkin, again…

“He’s one of the best ones in the league,” Lidstrom said. “He’s a big guy, but he’s got that quickness and speed, as well, where he can go wide on you, he can cut in and use his shot. He’s a very dynamic player.”

Howard’s plan is to stay at the top of the crease and expect the unexpected. That’s the lesson he learned eight years ago.

“It was one of those games, when I look back on it, it was just like getting tossed to the wolves,” Howard said. “Sink or swim. I remember his third goal on me, it was a one-timer out of the air from a cross-ice saucer (pass), dot-to-dot. I was just like, ‘Wow.’ “

So Howard told the Windsor Star’s Dave Waddell that he has a specific plan of action against Ovechkin:

“Stay out at the top of the crease and hope it hits you,” Howard said. “He’s one of the most exciting players to watch in the NHL. He can fire it from anywhere in the rink. You have to expect the unexpected with him.”

Babcock made a downright snide comment regarding the Capitals during a testy Tuesday press conference, saying that he “wasn’t a connoisseur of Capitals hockey,” but he did speak to the Detroit News’s Ted Kulfan about the team the Wings are facing…

“They are playing real well,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “I watched them play against Carolina a little bit and watched them (against) Chicago and I thought they were real good without the puck. They are a big team and their back end really skates and can be physical. They have good goaltending and they have guys who can score. That makes for a good team.”

Before the Wings finally got down to the business of discussing their need to emulate the Capitals in at least one aspect, albeit obliquely:

“They have the offensive guys that can score goals for them, but they’re playing real well defensively, too,” Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. “I think that’s one of the reasons they’re winning right now.”

The Capitals have dropped their 2.77 goals-against average from last season to 2.37.

“I guess they are trying to find a game-winning formula for the playoffs that’s been a problem in their previous years,” Red Wings forward Johan Franzen said. “They haven’t been good enough defensively (in past years) and they’ve probably been working on that a lot and they are starting to get results.”

Fittingly, I think it’s best to finish this game preview with WXYZ’s video report regarding Babcock’s decision as to who he’s going to scratch on a given night now that the team’s returning to full strength…

As well as a re-posted Babcock presser (you’ll have to crank the volume up as he was quiet—maybe he has the H2H2 flu!):

 

And, per the NHL’s media website, Tim Peel and Mike Leggo will referee tonight’s game, with Jay Sharrers and Dan Schachte working the lines.

Puck the Media’s Steve Lepore will list tonight’s Versus announcers sometime later today, but I’m guessing that John Forslund and Eddie Olczyk, who called the Capitals-Canadiens game, will reprise their roles tonight.

Also of Red Wings-related note: Between you and me, the Red Wings sent fans an email stating that, should one place a deposit on full season tickets for the 2011-2012 season, the team will both allow would-be season ticket-holders to purchase playoff tickets before the general public, and that they can do so at lower-than-box-office prices. The form they link to also reveals the Wings’ de-facto playoff logo (not the slogan, mind you):

• In Sweden, AIK Skelleftea, which was promoted to the Swedish Eliteserien from the Allsvenskan this season, pulled off a stunning upset, defeating Daniel Larsson, Adam Almqvist and the reigning Eliteserien champions, HV71, by a 4-1 tally on Tuesday night, winning the series by a 4-1 margin.

Larsson gave up 3 goals on 22 shots against, and Larsson was extremely frustrated while speaking to Jnytt.se’s Peter Gustafsson:

I don’t know how to explain it. I’m at a loss for words, angry and really sad,” said Daniel Larsson.

Larsson was also ripped on Swedish TV for giving up 2 goals in just under three minutes in the third period. He won one of his two starts after replacing goaltender Andreas Andersson, who unseated Larsson for the starter’s job late in the season, posting a 2.58 goals-against average and a .895 save percentage.

• The Wings might or might not be too keen on retaining Larsson’s rights. He was brought in to be HV71’s ringer, and he played relatively well this season, but when league champions are defeated in the first round, by a team that was playing in the Swedish equivalent of the AHL a season ago, heads tend to roll, and Larsson can frankly earn much, much more in Sweden, Finland or Russia than he can playing caddy for Thomas McCollum and Jordan Pearce in Grand Rapids (given Pearce’s progress of late, that might be next year’s Griffins tandem). The Wings do want to retain the rights of Hat Trick Dick Axelsson, of course, but Larsson’s another story, as RedWingsCentral’s Matthew Wuest notes...

Goaltender Daniel Larsson (HV-71, Swedish Elite League) saw his season end in bizarre fashion. After appearing in 45 of 52 regular season games, he was benched to start the playoffs. Backup Andreas Andersson faltered in the first two games, so HV-71 went back to Larsson, but was ultimately swept in four straight

And Wuest focuses his weekly prospect report upon a brighter goaltending prospect, Ottawa 67’s goaltender Peter Mrazek. Wuest reports that Mrazek visited the Wings when they tangled with the Ottawa Senators in February (see: Johan Franzen’s 5-goal game), and Wuest says that the lanky but incredibly slight goaltender checked in with a goaltender who helped him get into better shape both on and off the ice:

“I met Jimmy at training camp,” Mrazek said. “He helped show me how to work hard at practice and in the gym. He also showed me how to prepare in the room before the game. I have been using everything he showed me so I wanted to tell him how much he helped me.”

The 6-foot-2, 162-pound goalie has put Howard’s techniques to good use this season, emerging as one of the top goalies in the Ontario Hockey League. In 50 games with the Ottawa 67’s Mrazek tops the circuit with a .921 save percentage and has the fourth best goals-against average at 2.83. His play has been instrumental to Ottawa’s success and he was recently named the hardest working player and the top fan favorite at the team’s awards banquet.

“The coach (Chris Byrne) gave me a lot of chances this season,” he said. “I got a chance to play 50 games in a season so that is good experience. When you are playing more games, it is so much easier and better for you.”

As Wuest notes, Mrazek was left off the Czech World Junior Championship team because the Czech Ice Hockey Federation and his Czech Extraliga rights-holder, HC Vitkovice, tried to railroad him into signing a contract to stay in the Extraliga, with the expense of staying in North America yielding blacklisting from the Czech roster, but the 67’s are a stacked team going into the OHL playoffs, and Mrazek hopes to win the OHL championship…before patiently doing what Larsson could or would not in serving an apprenticeship in the AHL:

“It is my dream to have a contract with an NHL team, but the work isn’t finished,” he said. “If you want to play in the NHL, it’s a long trip probably in the AHL. You need to work hard to get a chance in the NHL and that is all I am trying to do.”

• Mentioned on yesterday, but worth repeating, per the Windsor Star’s Bob Duff:

Detroit Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill and Red Wings scouts Bruce Haralson and Marty Stein are among the contributors to The Art Of Scouting, a new book by author Shane Malloy that looks in-depth at the process of determining which amateur players are NHL-worthy and which are not. It’s a high stakes situation in which jobs are on the line and a team’s future lies in the outcome of these decisions. With a foreword by Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, the book offers a rare look behind the scenes into a world where few outside of the hockey fraternity are welcomed.

• In our almost-daily, “Canucks beat writers comparing Vancouver to the Wings” department, per the Vancouver Province’s Iain MacIntyre:

Picture the Detroit Red Wings without Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall on their defence, or the Philadelphia Flyers minus Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen.

The long-term losses of [Kevin] Bieksa and [Alex] Edler should have caused the Canucks to stop, drop and roll into full-scale survival mode in which they would throttle back and tediously manage games while marking on a calendar the days until their best defencemen returned.

But hardly anyone has noticed their absence.
...
They’ve won every one of the last six, boosting their record to 9-4 without Bieksa and 16-6 absent Edler.

Yes, because Bieksa and Edler are exactly the same talent-wise as Lidstrom, Pronger, Kronwall or Timonen. Right.

• In the, “Where the hell did that come from?” category, The Fourth Period lets us know that Nicklas Lidstrom “isn’t focused” on signing a new contract with Detroit, which isn’t exactly news given that Lidstrom stated, as of last June, that he’d go from year-to-year and sit down with his family at the end of every season going forward to decide whether he wants to continue to play;

• And I hate to admit this, but I’m skipping attending the Wings-Capitals game because my sinus infection’s morphed into a nasty head cold. I’ll do my best to post updates today but they might not be within-ten-minutes timely on every occasion.

Update: Oh fun, per the Windsor Star:

Colin Campbell is coming to Windsor to share his thoughts on building a winning team.

The senior executive vicepresident of the NHL will be a guest speaker at the Breakfast with Champions seminar at the Caboto Club March 31.

Campbell, who played with the Red Wings from 1982 to 1985, serves as the NHL’s disciplinarian.

The seminar is free but preregistration is required. For more information, phone 519971-3678 or email bbarone@ uwindsor.ca.

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Comments

redxblack's avatar

Another fine piece, George!

A 9 game win streak would be a lot of fun to watch. I’m hoping the Wings have one in early May through June.

Posted by redxblack from Akron Ohio on 03/16/11 at 10:40 AM ET

Evilpens's avatar

Watch out Caps fans will think they have won the SC if they beat you LOL

Posted by Evilpens on 03/16/11 at 11:19 AM ET

MarkK's avatar

The Wings are first in the West

Did I miss 10 games?

Evilpens, I don’t doubt it, and I expect to hear as much, living in Caps country.

Posted by MarkK from Maryland on 03/16/11 at 01:16 PM ET

Trish's avatar

Feel better George, we appreciate what you do.

Posted by Trish from PalmBeachCntyFL on 03/16/11 at 01:36 PM ET

MsRedWinger's avatar

So what’s up with Eaves?  I thought he was cleared to play the other day.  Then yesterday, he had a “personal day,” whatever that means.  And now he’s not ready again?

Yes, feel better, George.

Posted by MsRedWinger from Flori-duh on 03/16/11 at 01:43 PM ET

Primis's avatar

I’m so tired of hearing about Larsson.  He’s a coward and a failure.  He proved that when he bolted back to the SEL.

As far as I’m concerned, Axelsson is as well.  They can both be losers playing in inferior loser leagues overseas.  They both had golden…. GOLDEN opportunities and turned them down.

For the Caps, this is a huge game.  For the Wings… it’s friggin’ Wednesday.  Says a lot, doesn’t it?

Canucks writers are idiots.  If they ever had a championship team maybe they’d know more what they’re talking about.  A steady diet of playing CGY, EDM, MIN, and COL does wonders for one’s record, doesn’t it?  Compare the Central and Northwest divisions.  Not even a contest.  VAN remains a pick of mine to flame out in the first round.

Posted by Primis on 03/16/11 at 02:14 PM ET

SYF's avatar

Marcus Johansson.  I watched this sonuvabitch play against the Habs last night and he was a force.  He wrecked havoc in the neutral zone, which has been a bit of a sore point for the Wings.  Strong skater, good hands, and an intensity that the Caps are feeding off from.

George, at the last WJC, did you ever get a chance to see Petr Mrazek play?  I kept looking for him when his Czech team played the Swedes.  If I recall, the Czech team did not put players’ names on the back of their sweaters.

Posted by SYF from Zata's Epic Viking Beard on 03/16/11 at 04:45 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.