The Malik Report
by George Malik on 12/12/11 at 11:11 AM ET
The Red Wings received a welcome Sunday off after their 7-1 victory over Winnipeg on Saturday, and today, they’ll practice, fly to Pittsburgh and prepare for what might be the most brutal stretch of their schedule: the Wings will play six games over the course of ten pre-Christmas days, facing the Penguins in Pittsburgh (and no, neither the Penguins nor Wings know the status of #87 at present), the Predators in Nashville and then stopping at home to refuel Red Bird III, host the Los Angeles Kings next Saturday and almost immediately head to Western Canada to play a three-games-in-four-nights slate against the Oilers, Canucks and Flames.
Put unpleasantly bluntly, the Wings have to brace for some serious-ass wear and tear while hoping to both gain ground in the tightly-packed Western Conference and hopefully not get too banged-up along the way. They’ll have four more games (two on the road and two at home) to close out the last week of December, too, so in the larger scheme of things, we’re really talking about 10 games over the course of 19 nights (including a three-day break around Christmas), all starting on Tuesday.
Somewhat paradoxically, as the Detroit News’s Ted Kulfan notes, the Wings can prepare for their nasty road grind knowing that they’ve made hay at home, reversing a tremendously shaky 2010-2011 record at Joe Louis Arena:
Saturday’s 7-1 victory over Winnipeg (and before an oddly good-sized amount of Jets fans) was the Wings’ ninth consecutive win at home, giving the Wings a 12-2-1 record at JLA. It’s something the Wings wanted to do, when dwelling on last season’s mysterious downfall. The Wings struggled at home last season, with a 21-14-6 record.
“What’s the answer to that question, I don’t know,” coach Mike Babcock said of the turnaround. “If you’re not getting it on the road, you better be getting it at home or you need to find somewhere else to play. We’ve been good at home and haven’t been as good on the road.”
Nicklas Lidstrom said the Wings are playing a simpler, more direct game at home, and it’s resulting in the success.
“Just much more basic,” Lidstrom said. “Not trying to look for that extra pass.”
Said Jimmy Howard: “Maybe we were trying to be too fancy (at home). We’ve simplified things at home here of late.”
The Wings might be advised to take that approach on the road this season. Always a strong road team (26-11-4 last season, 31 wins in 2005-06), the Wings have struggled thus far. They’re 6-7-0 this season with important road games in Pittsburgh (Tuesday) and Nashville (Thursday) this week.
Regarding avoiding injuries, MLive’s Ansar Khan spoke to someone who can no longer be described, as Henrik Zetterberg suggested to Aftonbladet’s Per Bjurman, as a “mother’s dream” after Niklas Kronwall took both a puck off the nose in Thursday’s game against Phoenix and earned a chin’s full of stitches after accidentally blocking a shot into his face during Saturday’s game against Winnipeg.
Khan notes that Kronwall’s blocked 73 shots thus far, and despite the inherent risks involved in playing goalie without nearly as much protective equipment (see: Patrick Eaves, Ian White, the “boo boo” plastic stitched onto the index finger of Brad Stuart’s right glove, etc.), Kronwall’s proud of doing a thankless job:
“Sometimes, it just happens that way,” Kronwall said. “I think every guy in here is always trying to get into lanes and making sure that you do whatever you can to prevent the puck from getting to the net.”
The Red Wings, with 330 blocks, are tied for last in the league with Columbus. They would rather their top players not risk injury by getting in the way of pucks. Kronwall is not concerned, however.
“We got pads. We should be protected pretty good,” Kronwall said. “(The shin pad) is usually where you want to take it.”
Kronwall feels that he’s simply the torch-bearer of a league-wide trend…
“I think you’ll see more and more teams in the last few years blocking a lot more, getting more and more into shooting lanes,” Kronwall said. “I just know as a D-man on the power play, a lot of times, you’ll have almost two or three guys in the lane. You not only have the forward who’s trying to get into the lane, but also the D-man standing in front of the net, kind of taking a different angle. It’s getting tougher and tougher to get pucks through.”
Kronwall learned some of his shot-blocking techniques from watching former teammate Andreas Lilja.
“He played with a lot of heart. He always made sure he was in the shooting lane, if he could,” Kronwall said. “I learned a lot from him. And, of course, Stewie (teammate Brad Stuart), as well, is really good.”
Khan also mentions the dominance of the Valtteri Filppula-Henrik Zetterberg (he’s healed quite nicely from whatever hand injury he was nursing in November)-Jiri Hudler line and the fact that Westland native Chris Conner scored his first goal as a Wing on Saturday, but the smirk-inducer of the morning involves coach Mike Babcock’s comments about Todd Bertuzzi, who’s back on a scoring streak and has played like his usual “Todd Bertuzzi 2.0” self again after recovering from a sinus infection:
“I just think he’s playing with good players (Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen), but what he’s doing is he’s hanging onto the puck, he’s playing big, he’s responsible defensively, and when Bert does those things, he’s a real good player,” Babcock said. “We’ve asked him to simplify his game, and he’s playing with players that if he gets to the net and he works for them, he’s going to score.”
Babcock can’t seem to stand those backhand dekes or attempts to dangles any more than you or I can! Simplify (wink wink, nudge nudge)!
We’ve talked quite a bit about Jimmy Howard’s candidacy for the All-Star Game as proffered by WRIF’s Meltdown, whose bus tour of the Metro Detroit area encouraged fans to write in Howard’s name on the All-Star ballot.
As such it’s particularly interesting to hear Howard’s own take on his maturation into a truly elite goaltender, per the Detroit News’s Ted Kulfan:
“I just feel comfortable being out there,” Howard said. “This is my third year here and I feel I can be a difference-maker out there. I had confidence coming out of the playoffs last year and I’ve just tried to keep it going.”
As Kulfan notes, now that Howard’s settled down in terms of both his contract and his family as the proud papa of James IV, he’s all but forced the Wings to start him every night, and his teammates and coach appreciate watching the fully-formed Howard play:
“He’s giving us a chance to win every game,” forward Henrik Zetterberg said. “He’s doing all you can ask of a goalie.”
By gaining experience and understanding the ups and downs of the position, Howard seems to have a found, according to coach Mike Babcock, a balance elite goalies need to have.
“He just plays,” Babcock said. “When he gives up a bad one (goal), he just keeps doing good things. It’s like water off a duck’s back.”
Part of the credit for Howard’s development in the NHL has to go to the Wings’ decision to keep him marinating in the minor leagues. Howard spent four seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins, awaiting his eventual full-time call-up by the Wings.
“In hindsight it was very beneficial,” said Howard, who admits it was sometimes frustrating waiting for his NHL opportunity. “You want to up here, you’re working hard, and when you get your opportunity you want to take advantage of it. Being a black ace (a playoff call-up) was truly a blessing in disguise. Watching Dom (Dominik Hasek) and Ozzie (Chris Osgood) and how they handled situations and how they handled it with ease, it was good for me to see that.”
I’d also argue that, over this past summer, Howard finally refined his game to, in Babcock’s words, allow the puck to “stick” to him more regularly. Howard’s moved that extra six inches out of his crease to stop first shots, as Fox Sports Detroit’s Darren Eliot has suggested, Howard doesn’t scramble around the net as much, instead choosing to conserve his momentum and take the shortest route to the puck instead of lunging himself at every shot, and in the “sticking” department, he’s changed to a split “tee” in his catch glove to help corral the puck in his very flat glove (some goalies prefer catch gloves whose palms and fingers curve to grab onto pucks, and Dominik Hasek’s “taco glove” at least had an indentation in the palm, but Howard’s glove has very flat fingers to give him the most blocking surface possible, and it closes as tightly as a book).
As for the All-Star business, Howard told the Macomb Daily’s Chuck Pleiness that he knows the actual All-Star game experience isn’t fun for goalies playing sans any sort of defense, but he’s willing to go if he’s picked by fans or the NHL’s hockey operations department:
“I’d be able to spend time with my family, which is fantastic,” Howard said. “(But) it would be a tremendous opportunity and I’m sure it would be a lot of fun. Just to be in the talks (of) possibly being an All-Star is nice considering the road I’ve taken.”
In the multimedia department, the Wings’ website posted a video reviewing the Wings’ action over the past week…
And the Wings’ website also posted a video of the team’s bell-ringing partnership with the Salvation Army, which raised $17,150—excluding the check Ken Holland wrote to ensure that he and Mike Babcock won the friendly competition between the “teams” of kettle-manners:
According to CBS Detroit’s Matt Roush, the red kettles which will be at the Joe for Saturday’s game against LA won’t end the partnership between the Wings and the Southeastern Michigan chapter of the Salvation Army, because the team’s going to engage in a campaign on the organization’s “Online Red Kettle” website as well.
They do a helluva lot of good around here, and the money they raise very literally goes right back into investing in the community, so I’m giving ‘em a plug and a thank you as a former client.
Changing gears in a big way, the Grand Rapids Griffins earned only two points and went 0-1-and-2 over the weekend, finishing their 3-games-in-3-nights slate with a 3-1 loss to the Chicago Wolves.
The Griffins’ website’s recap, the Wolves’ website’s recap the Grand Rapids Press’s recap (which states that Fabian Brunnstrom’s nursing some sort of “minor injury”—let’s just say that the NHL’s “upper” and “lower-body” injury policy has nothing on the AHL’s, “Um, he’s hurt,” “he couldn’t go” or “he’s got a nagging…thing…” standard of injury-reporting) conveniently ignore the fact that the Griffins got into 3 fights and took 39 of the game’s 80 minutes in penalties, but the Wolves’ YouTube channel showcases some of the fisticuffs for those of you who enjoy taking those in:
• And RedWingsCentral’s Sarah Lindenau, writing on her Left Wing Lock blog, notes that the Slovak World Junior Championship team (despite the IIHF press release to the contrary) will probably add Wings prospects Marek Tvrdon and Tomas Jurco to their roster, joining Mattias Backman (Sweden), Petr Mrazek (Czech Republic) and Teemu Pulkkinen (Finland) in Alberta as the WJC shuffles between Edmonton and Calgary:
On Friday team Slovakia named Red Wings prospects Marek Tvrdon and Tomas Jurco to their preliminary roster for the 2012 World Junior Championship which kicks off after Christmas. While the duo has not officially been named to the final roster, it’s a safe bet that both players will make the final roster.
Matter of fact, Tvrdon and Jurco could be key contributors for Slovakia when they kick things off on December 27th against Latvia. The 6-foot-2, 187 pound Jurco is one of just six players returning to this year’s team and his dynamic offensive skills could cause opposition teams difficulty. This will be Tvrdon’s first WJC appearance after sitting out nearly all of last season with shoulder injury. He did represent Slovakia at the 2010 under 18 tournament where he scored 3 goals and 4 points in 6 games.
Jurco’s offensive skills and dazzling puck handling skills are well documented and he’s expected to be a key offensive weapon for the Slovaks. Tvrdon, on the other hand, could be the surprise of the tournament. The skilled winger has already notched 14 goals and 36 points in 30 games for Vancouver of the WHL this season. He’s not as flashy as Jurco, but he’s a big powerful winger with offensive skills who is primed for a breakout. The duo will be counted to have a chance to defeat the Russians and Swedes in the preliminary round.
While team Slovakia enters the tournament as an underdog to earn a spot at the medal rounds, Tvrdon and Jurco could be difference makers. The forwards should see a lot of ice time and play in all situations against some of the best players in the world. In addition, their individual performances will also go a long way to deciding their futures with the Red Wings.
In the fantasy hockey department, NHL.com’s John Kreiser notes that Jiri Hudler’s been anything of a fantasy hockey dud of late…
Jiri Hudler—The Red Wings are firing on all cylinders offensively, and Hudler is more than doing his part. He scored a pair of goals Saturday night against Winnipeg and has four goals and six points during a three-game scoring streak.
If you haven’t read about it already, Chris Chelios will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame tonight, and he spoke quite extensively to the press about his career, his trade to Detroit, and his likely future in coaching, as did Wings GM Ken Holland;
And finally, I want to let you know that I’m gonna be out of the office for a bit today to ferry the mom to a doctor’s appointment and grocery shopping trip (a blown tire and busted spare means we’re a one-car family this week), and I might lay a little low today given the Wings,’ and thus my, upcoming schedule. If the off-day report or practice reports are a little slow in coming for your liking, I apologize in advance.
I’m very happy to be back in the saddle again, but I spent most of my absence doing what somebody who’s battling chronic depression and anxiety tends to do when those illnesses flare—I slept and slept some more—so the last week’s workload and especially its affects on my sleep have taken a bit of a toll. I’ve got to recharge my batteries while I can.
I do have to say that while I don’t want to get into too much detail about things, if you feel a statement is necessary as to what happened and why, I will share it.
Update: This makes me angry. Aftonbladet’s Per Bjurman wrote an article called, “Lockout—a Swedish Dream,” all but salivating while fantasizing about seeing Henrik Zetterberg play for Timra IK again and the Sedins return to Modo Ornskoldsvik if the NHL locks out its players in 2012. It’s classic Swedish newspaper sensationalism and fluff, especially given what Zetterberg says after admitting that, should any sort of “work stoppage” happen, he would indeed head back to Timra:
“The atmosphere is very different from four years ago. Then we already knew what time of year that the [labor negotiations] would be fought,” he says. ” Now of course, the league’s good. Revenues have grown every year.”
Or, as Kevin Lowe stated on the Board of Governors’ behalf, “the system isn’t broken.” Nor are the small and big-market owners on the same page, so here’s hoping that there is no “Swedish Dream.”
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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.