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Red Wings-Hurricanes preview: mathematicians of playoff doom (and Helm and Abdelkader stuff)

The Detroit Red Wings can all but extinguish the playoff hopes of the 9th-place Carolina Hurricanes (who are four points behind the New York Rangers for the 8th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference) if Detroit prevails in tonight’s game (7 PM EDT [not 7:30], FSD+/FS Carolinas/WXYT), and the same is almost certainly true for the Wings if the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit’s back-to-back opponent on Friday and Sunday, lose in St. Louis tonight.

The Red Wings, who remain without Niklas Kronwall (“upper body”) and Chris Osgood (probably not playoff ready), stated repeatedly on Monday that, as their pro scouts continue to crisscross the continent, the players and coach Mike Babcock remain focused on only playing the best that they possibly can with three unofficial “dress rehearsals” remaining.

The Wings still harbor hopes of catching the San Jose Sharks, who they trail by one point and one win, for 2nd in the Western Conference, but in terms of their ability to play the “spoiler’s” role against the defending Stanley Cup champs or tonight’s opponent, which is a rival as much because of the once-nasty feud between junior hockey pioneers Peter Karmanos and Mike Ilitch as anything else, the Wings insist that the playoff-level of intensity likely to be brought to the table by the Hurricanes tonight and the Blackhawks this weekend is good for Detroit going forward, but the rest simply “isn’t personal.”

The Hurricanes don’t necessarily feel any differently than the Wings do. Carolina boasts a 38-30-and-11 record and is coming off a 2-1 overtime loss to the now-seventh-place Buffalo Sabres on Sunday. While that loss broke a 3-game winning streak and a stretch of games in which the Canes had won nine of the 11 games they’d played since the middle of March, CarolinaHurricanes.com’s Paul Branecky explained on Monday that the Canes have to run the table to clinch a playoff spot, and Carolina understands that it’s in tough tonight…

“They’re not invincible. We’ve seen that,” said [Hurricanes coach Paul] Maurice. “They’re a very, very good hockey team, but we have more on the line and that has to be our advantage. It’s just a matter of inches in this game, and if you’re not right on and the other team is, you’re going to have a hard time beating them regardless of where you sit in the standings.”

As has been the case for many of the Hurricanes’ recent efforts, win or loss, they remain reasonably pleased with their overall game.

“We had five really good chances to score in that third period (against Buffalo), and I’m glad we weren’t playing sitting back,” said Maurice. “That’s the attitude that will make us successful and give us the best chance to be successful. We’ve got to go and be aggressive and play with no fear and all excitement.”

Continuing a consistent development down the stretch, Eric Staal did not take part in the on-ice session of Monday’s practice but will play against Detroit. Staal played 24:42 against Buffalo, including a game-high 6:59 on the power play, and ranks third in the NHL in total ice time (1,719 minutes) and ice time per game (22:02) among forwards behind Ilya Kovalchuk and Corey Perry. No other Hurricanes forward cracks the top 70 in minutes per game, with Erik Cole checking in at No. 74 (18:28). For the moment, it remains unclear as to whether the team will have any lineup changes for the Detroit game, particularly on defense, where Jay Harrison continues to nurse the upper-body injury that has kept him out of the last four games but could likely play if needed.

“We’re still dealing daily with nicks, and it gets to the point of who’s the least nicked up, and if you put him in what position does he play,” said Maurice. “There’s a lot of factors where you have to give it one more day, let’s see how the groin or whatever the injury is a guy is dealing with, see how they come back and then we’ll make a decision.”

Maurice continued while speaking to the Raleigh News & Observer’s Chip Alexander:

“Instead of talking about we need a little help, it won’t matter unless we win our games,” Maurice said. “I liked so much of that game against Buffalo, especially that third period when it was even. It’s not like they’re chasing and you opening your game up. We had five really good chances to score in that third period. And I’m glad we weren’t playing sitting back. That’s the attitude that will make us successful and give us the best chance to be successful: we’ve got to go and we’ve got to be aggressive and play with no fear and all excitement.”
“We’ve talked about this rollercoaster,” he said. “It’s even worse when you’re watching other teams. [When the Rangers trailed Boston] 3-0 [on Sunday], you’re thinking, ‘Well, back in the fight and we can be back in eighth in 24 hours.’ Then you watch [the Rangers win 4-3]... that was a little frustrating but we can’t control any of it. You watch those games and you’re coaching them—‘Put that guy on the bench, he’s got to get that puck deep.’ Oh, man. ‘Make a pass, man,’ I finally said, ‘This is crazy, 82 is enough.’”

And, scoreboard watching aside, Erik Cole sounded downright Wing-like in suggesting that his team’s focus remains self-contained:

“You can’t control what other teams are doing,” Cole said today after practice at the RBC Center. “All the guys were watching the game [Sunday] night. What can you say? It’s out of our control. All the teams that are in our situation are playing that desperate game and it shows. You just have concentrate on what we can do. I think we just need to finish the season with three wins and let the chips fall where they may.”

Winning the last three won’t be easy. The Canes face the Detroit Red Wings tomorrow at the RBC Center. Then it’s one final back-to-back — Friday in Atlanta, then the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday at home. The Buffalo Sabres, now eighth in the East, play the Lightning tonight at HSBC Arena. If the Sabres win, they will be 5 points ahead of Carolina. Cole said if the Canes could reach the playoffs, they’re playing well enough to make a run. But it’s the getting there that’s problematic now.

“If you can get in, you might catch somebody who’s not been playing as desperately as you and aren’t as prepared for playoff hockey,” Cole said. “We’ve been preparing for months now. All we can is play as best we can, win games and we’ll see what happens.”

The Sabres did win, and as the Canes’ press’s updates are sparse this morning (the News & Observer doesn’t update till the sun’s almost up in Michigan, and as I’m writing this, the sun is up, but there are no updates—time to move on), we’ll move on to NHL.com’s Frank Mentesana to continue to set up tonight’s game:

Last 10: Detroit 5-3-2; Carolina 7-2-1.

Season Series: This is the lone meeting this season between the clubs. The last time they faced each other was on Jan. 14, 2010 in Detroit, and on that night the Red Wings came away with a 3-1 win behind 37 saves from Jimmy Howard. The Wings have won three straight over Carolina and hold a decided advantage in the series over the last 12 years, going 9-2-1 with a tie, dating back to Jan. 21, 1999.

Big Story: While this game isn’t a must-win contest mathematically for the Hurricanes, they can’t treat it like anything less if they want to still be playing past this Sunday. They sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, four points behind the Rangers for the final playoff spot. The one thing the ‘Canes have going for them is they have three games remaining on the schedule, while the Rangers have just two.
Who’s Hot: Carolina captain Eric Staal has 4 goals and 3 assists in his last six games. …For Detroit, Henrik Zetterberg has 7 points in his current five-game point streak, while Brian Rafalski has 7 points in his last five games and Lidstrom has 7 points in his last six.

Injury Report: Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk returned from a lower-body injury against the Wild on Sunday, playing for the first time since March 17. Jimmy Howard also looks strong, starting on back-to-back nights over the weekend and winning both games, after missing two because of an injured left shoulder. Defenseman Niklas Kronwall (shoulder) will miss a third straight game Wednesday, and Chris Osgood (groin) remains sidelined. …On the Carolina side, Jay Harrison continues to nurse the upper-body injury that has kept him out of the last four games, although has not been ruled out for Wednesday’s game.

Stat Pack: Detroit is 12-3-2 against the East, the NHL’s best inter-conference record. … Staal scored the Hurricanes’ lone goal versus Buffalo on Sunday, becoming the third player in franchise history with 500 points, and the only one to register all of them with the Hurricanes. Ron Francis and Kevin Dineen also hit the milestone after spending time with the Hartford Whalers.

While much of Monday’s Red Wings news focused upon the emergence of the team’s younger players, and Justin Abdelkader in particular, the Wings did address their goals heading into their final three games, as noted by DetroitRedWings.com’s Dave Burke...

With the regular-season winding down, the Wings final three games are against two teams fighting for playoff spots. First, the Wings travel to Carolina on Wednesday to take on a Hurricane team currently is in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, but is 7-2-1 in their last 10 games. The Wings and Blackhawks finish the season with home-and-home games in Detroit on Friday and Sunday in Chicago. The defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks are playing for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

“Playing Carolina, they are in the same boat (as Chicago), where they’re going to be a desperate team battling to make the playoffs and need the wins,” Lidstrom said. “So they’re going to be some tough games heading down the stretch.”

The Macomb Daily’s Fred Costello...

“It’s good playing teams that need these points,” [Kris] Draper explained after Tuesday’s practice. “That’s going to continue to test us right up until the end. It’s going to be three good tests, because Carolina and Chicago are both fighting to stay in. We’ve got three games left and we want to take care of our own.  We want to be firing on all cylinders, come game one.”

Like their opponents, the Wings still have something to play for in this final regular season stretch.  The team is just one point back of San Jose for the second seed. Nick Lidstrom believes that all of those factors will contribute toward getting the team ready to go, once the puck drops for the postseason.

“We know we have to start playing better hockey,” Lidstrom said. “And, playing playoff hockey.”
One notable difference between this season and last is the relative health that the Red Wings are enjoying.  Niklas Kronwall missed practice due to a shoulder injury, but every other regular participated on Tuesday.  Even though the team has been without players for long stretches this year, there is still a silver lining to be found.

“We’re healthy at the right time of the year, and that’s what you want,” Draper said. “With all the injuries we had, it created opportunities for other players. So, the good thing is those guys have played a lot of hockey.”

And Fox Sports Detroit’s Dana Wakiji:

Although the Wings have clinched the Central Division, the Western Conference is so tight that they could play Anaheim, Calgary, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Nashville or Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs, depending what happens in the final few games.

“I think it’s real good because it’s so wide open, you can’t even predict,” Babcock said. “Be careful what you wish for is all I would tell you. So we’re not wishing for anything except being healthy and getting in and getting started. We’re fortunate we’re going to get started at home and go from there.”

Most of Babcock’s comments regarding the Wings’ play down the stretch did come during Monday’s updates, so you’ll have to pardon me for a little repetition here, starting with MLive.com’s Ansar Khan, who noted that the Wings dressed the following lines on Monday, but pointed out that those lines are anything but set in stone:

Zetterberg-Datsyuk-Cleary (Hudler working in)
Draper-Helm-Eaves (Miller working in)


Howard (starting)
Coach Mike Babcock indicated he’ll use various combinations in the final three games of the regular season.

“It doesn’t matter how many minutes you play, who you play with,’’ Babcock said. “All that matters is about the Red Wings. Just find a way to win. That’s out whole focus right now. So over the next three games you might see some different combinations. I’m trying to get in my mind what would be our lineup in Day 1 of the playoffs.’‘

And after praising the growth of Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm and Jakub Kindl in particular, Khan and the Free Press’s Helene St. James noted that Babcock spoke very plainly about the fact that his team’s progress over the last week of the regular season will come with an asterisk:

“We’re at the time of year that your best players normally really step up here,” he said today. “The guys with the most skill gotta be the best players. When I look around the league, I think, in the West right now, I think San Jose is playing the best. To me, they’re hitting on all cylinders right now. Vancouver has, no question, been the best team, and there’s a number of great teams … but just because you’re hitting on all cylinders this week doesn’t mean you are next week. That first game of the playoffs can determine a lot.

“Our focus is to continue to work on the details, to make sure every guy on our team understands that, to have success, it doesn’t matter how many minutes you play, it doesn’t matter who you play with, all that matters is simply about the Red Wings. That’s it. So just find a way to win. That’s our whole focus right now. Get healthy, and get feeling the best you possibly can. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

That’s the theory, and St. James adds this about Kronwall in her notebook:

Defenseman Niklas Kronwall will miss a third straight game because of an upper-body injury; the Wings plan to decide Friday whether Kronwall will play that night versus the Blackhawks or in Sunday’s game at Chicago, or sit until the playoffs.

Per the NHL’s media website, Marc Joanette and Wes McCauley will referee tonight’s game, and Lonnie Cameron and Vaughan Rody will work the lines.

Red Wings notebooks: Justin Abdelkader’s evolution into a more consistent offensive performer received the lion’s share of media coverage on Monday, and the Free Press’s Helene St. James notes this morning that Abdelkader’s usurped Valtteri Filppula’s spot as the team’s de-facto second line center between Todd Bertuzzi and Johan Franzen, and Bertuzzi and Babcock told St. James that, at least for the present moment, Abdelkader fits in nicely:

“I think just our size and our ability to get the puck deep and to work down low—I think that’s an element we’re going to need in the playoffs,” Bertuzzi said, “and a style that we’re going to have to play in the playoffs. So we have to continue with that.”

Bertuzzi had two fights Saturday, and Franzen can be a monster physically. Abdelkader is developing a solid edge, delivering the kind of hits that can drive opponents crazy during a long playoff series.

“Yeah, I think he’s kind of gaining his reputation for that,” Bertuzzi said. “He plays hard, and he’ll back it up, too. He’s capable of being offensive—it’s just a matter of getting years under his belt and getting his confidence up, and he could be a pretty darn good player.”

Coach Mike Babcock likes what he has seen from the trio, but, ideally, it’ll ultimately be Valtteri Filppula who plays in that second-line center slot.

“Abby’s played real hard, so that helps with that,” Babcock said. “But Val Filppula is a skilled guy for us that we think should probably be in that hole, because to me, to be as good as we can be, people need to be slotted right. And yet Abby has played real well and has been effective for us for a couple of games. Good for us. Over the next three games, you might see some different combinations. I’m trying to get in my mind what would be our lineup Day 1 of the playoffs.”

• The Detroit News’s Chris McCosky offers a fantastic profile of the Wings’ other “most improved forward,” fourth-line-turned-third-line center Darren Helm, speaking to Babcock about Helm’s evolution into a more consistent player, both offensively and defensively speaking.

Darren Helm scored 41 goals one year in junior hockey for Medicine Hat. Yet, he came to the NHL typecast as a third- or fourth-line defensive center, a grinder, a penalty-killing specialist. And even though he’s achieved a career-best 12 goals, playing 13:18 per game, his role isn’t likely to change — not this year, possibly not ever.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to compare him and the kind of game he plays to the toe-dragging, fiddler guy,” Babcock said, perhaps alluding, in his own colorful way, to offensive wizards like Pavel Datsyuk. “But he plays so hard and with so much pace that he puts the other team in trouble.”
“He’s really come,” Babcock said. “He’s not a high-minutes guy, per se, but he finds a way to play real well defensively, he’s a committed guy on the penalty-kill and he plays hard. We’re hoping he’s going to be the kind of leader that Draper is. Our hope for both him and Abby (Justin Abdelkader) is that they’re going to be real core, vested Red Wings that are going to lead the way around here.”

As well as Helm himself about his literal and figurative goals going forward (it’s the theme of the day)...

“I don’t think I’ve taken a big step, just little steps,” Helm said. “I had a great start, but the last few games I didn’t do much offensively. I am still getting chances and I am playing all right. But I would like to get her back to where I was in the middle of the season when things were clicking.”

And McCosky spoke at length to Helm’s trainer back in Winnipeg, who has Helm and other Winnipeg-based players work on leg strength by pulling and pushing a 50-lb sled, weighed down with as many as 580 pounds of extra weight, up and down inclines (we’ll ignore the McCosky’s suggestion that there’s a “hill’ between Winnipeg proper and Grand Beach Provincial Park on Lake Winnipeg):

“He’s the exception to the rule,” said Richard Burr, who trains Helm and a group of other NHL players during the offseason in Winnipeg. “You put him in a group with the other guys sprinting up the hill and he’s got an extra gear. You know, you look at him and he’s not overly big. But every ounce of him is a powerhouse.”

McCosky graduated from covering the Pistons to the kings of the Detroit media hill in the Lions after a change-up season with the Wings because he tends to proffer an agenda, and with the NFL in lockout mode, McCosky’s back on the Wings beat as a bit of a “color” guy, so his column is basically one big suggestion to Babcock and the Wings that Helm’s work ethic merits an eventual opportunity to break out of his role as a checking forward and flourish as an first or second-line player, but Helm does his best to temper those expectations:

“I feel like they like to keep me in the third or fourth spot, but if I keep working hard, working on my skill and strength, who knows?” he said. “I might get an opportunity to get into a different role. But I like my role. I like to be physical and use my speed. And I like to be counted on in the PK. Right now, I am just working as hard as I can to be the best player I can be in the role I am in.”

Also of Red Wings-related note: Hard to believe but true: According to the 7&4 News in Traverse City, the Red Wings’ 2011 Prospect Tournament and Training Camp tickets will go on sale on April 16th, on an in-person basis:

Tickets for Detroit Red Wings Training Camp 2011 will go on sale Saturday, April 16th from 10am to 3pm at Centre ICE Arena, 1600 Chartwell Drive off Hammond Road in Traverse City.  This is the first opportunity to purchase tickets for the fall camp.  The Red Wings have held camp in Traverse City since 1997.  This will be their 14th year at Centre ICE.

Centre ICE is a not-for-profit facility operated by Involved Citizens Enterprises.  It is home to the Grand Traverse Hockey Association, The Traverse City North Stars, Figure Skating Clubs and many youth and adult ice-skating activities.  All profits from Detroit Red Wings Training Camp are used to operate the facility and keep the cost of ice time affordable for the various users and the public.

This year’s Training Camp will begin with the first day of on-ice workouts Saturday, September 17th and will run through the Red and White game, Tuesday, September 20th.  Tickets are limited for each day and will be sold on a first come basis.

• Dick Axelsson was held off the scoresheet as the Swedish Eliteserien finals got underway on Tuesday night, but Farjestads BK defeated Skelleftea 5-4, staking out a 5-2 lead before hanging on for dear life.

Axelsson told NWT.se’s Totte Vesterlund that the win was particularly satisfying as he happens to be good friends with Jimmie Ericsson (Jonathan’s older brother), and the teams will resume hostilities on Thursday;

• In the KHL, a former Wings prospect’s team out-lasted one of Detroit’s most infamous alum’s squad to advance to the KHL final. Igor Grigorenko and fellow former Wing Slava Kozlov’s Salavat Yualev Ufa defeated Metallurg Magnitogorsk 1-0 in the 7th game of the KHL semifinal, extinguishing Sergei Fedorov’s hopes of facing off against his brother, Fedor, for the Gargarin Cup.

Salavat Yulaev (the team’s named for a Baskhir ruler who took part in Pugachev’s Revolution) will face Fedor Fedorov and Atlant Mytischi in the KHL final starting on Thursday, and while Fedorov’s 41, I don’t think that he’s going to end his playing career as he lost so much money thanks to financial mis-manager Joseph Zada (somewhere between $50-60 million) that he still has to work for a living;

• In the sort-of-alumni department, Evgeni Nabokov told Sovetsky Sport’s Pavel Lysenkov that he still can’t play for Russia’s World Championship team until April 10th, but he claims that the New York Islanders are being pressured by the NHL to prevent him from playing before the end of the Islanders’ season, not because Garth Snow’s angry at Nabokov (who knows whether that’s the truth);

• In the alumni department, the Buffalo Sabres have invited 75 veterans to take part in their fan appreciation night on Friday, April 8th, and former Wings Jason Woolley and Brad May are taking part, but I’m honestly mostly mentioning the event because there’s just a ridiculous number of fan favorites from many, many teams attending the event;

• Shifting focus both back to the Red Wings and, very specifically, to prospects, the South Bend Tribune’s Jim Meenan spoke to Red Wings prospect and University of Notre Dame forward Riley Sheahan about his post-season performance going into Thursday night’s Frozen Four semifinal against the University of Minnesota-Duluth (5 PM EDT, ESPN2/ESPN3.com):

Sheahan, a sophomore center, has had five points in five games, including two assists in the 2-1 win over New Hampshire that vaulted the Irish into the semifinal game Thursday of the Frozen Four. A Canadian from St. Catherines, Ontario, Sheahan says there are several reasons, foremost among them concentration.

“I think it was just focusing a little more,” he said in an interview after Monday’s practice. “Obviously, we are in the most important part of our season and there’s no better time to start putting up points.”

Sheahan, (pronounced SHAY-han, not SHEE-han as ESPN announcers said repeatedly at the regional), says he also has been “bearing down a little more on the little things, sort of just visualizing what I am going to do a little more,” before games. And his linemates, who include Anders Lee and Billy Maday, is another major reason, Sheahan said. Notre Dame hockey coach Jeff Jackson said he opted to split up an all-freshman line of team MVP T.J. Tynan, leading goal scorer Lee and fellow frosh Bryan Rust late in the season when opposing defenses started giving them too much attention. Senior Calle Ridderwall had been playing with Maday and Sheahan earlier this season.
Sheahan also considers himself a leader, and felt it was time to step up. But there’s another aspect to his game that may have led to the increased production down the stretch, Jackson says.

“It’s confidence,” said the coach, who is not only taking the Irish to the second Frozen Four since taking over the program for the 2005-06 season, but is making his fifth trip overall in search of his third national title. “He went through the first half and I thought he was playing well and he was not getting the goals, getting a lot of chances, especially short-handed chances. When you don’t score, you feel a lot of weight on your shoulders.”

This comment is also particularly revealing given, ahem, the team’s off-ice indiscretions last summer:

“In the dressing room, guys aren’t afraid to say what’s on our mind, that’s one reason we are so close,” he said. “Because if there’s a problem, guys will say it and it usually gets resolved pretty quickly. Last year, there was a few cliques. This year the group is one big group together. That’s one big part of our success.”

• According to the Everett Herald’s Nick Patterson, if there ever was a sign of the Red Wings leaning toward having Landon Ferraro “turn pro” with the Grand Rapids Griffins instead of playing in the WHL for one more season, it’s this: the Everett Silvertips named defenseman Ryan Murray their captain, with Murray succeeding Ferraro;

• And finally, Red Wings pro scout Kirk Maltby spoke to WDFN’s Sean Baligian and Killer Kowalski on Monday evening, admitting that he’s not necessarily looking forward to having to watch playoff games from the press box:

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SolidTG7's avatar

I thought the best part of Abby’s game against Nashville was when he paid back Erat for that dirty elbow from the the previous game.  Erat deserved what he got, wasn’t even mad he got a penalty on that hit.

The more I see Erat, the more he comes off as a sneaky cheapshot player, see the slewfoot on JH that drew a penalty.

Posted by SolidTG7 on 04/06/11 at 11:42 AM ET

MsRedWinger's avatar

Thanks, George.  When we look back on this season, I think we’ll see that the black cloud of injuries the Wings had to endure definitely had a silver lining in the maturing play of guys like Helm, Abby and Kindl.  These guys will be huge contributors in the playoffs, but they also make me really excited about the Red Wings’ future.

So, let’s run the table, boys!  I don’t really care of we keep the Hurricanes out of the playoffs or not, but it would sure be sweet to kick the Hawks in their collective arses.


Posted by MsRedWinger from the State where Tigers roam in the Spring on 04/06/11 at 11:59 AM ET

Trish's avatar

Well, I am just happy to have “the toe-dragging, fiddler guy” back in the lineup.  Makes a big difference to the team.  cool smile

Posted by Trish from Tampa/Clearwater FL on 04/06/11 at 02:58 PM ET

Rumbear's avatar

Great report George!  Let’s see which team shows up tonight.

LGRW !!!!!

Posted by Rumbear from Top O the Hasek, Czech out my recliner..... on 04/06/11 at 03:18 PM ET

SYF's avatar

I thought the best part of Abby’s game against Nashville was when he paid back Erat for that dirty elbow from the the previous game.  Erat deserved what he got, wasn’t even mad he got a penalty on that hit.

The more I see Erat, the more he comes off as a sneaky cheapshot player, see the slewfoot on JH that drew a penalty.

Posted by SolidTG7 on 04/06/11 at 09:42 AM ET

+1.  But it still irks me that Erat didn’t get called for his blatant flying elbow.

Posted by SYF from A tall cool pint of Guinness on 04/06/11 at 03:49 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.