The Malik Report
by George Malik on 01/02/12 at 10:00 AM ET
The Detroit Red Wings received a welcome day off on Sunday, and aside from addressing Ian Cole’s three-game suspension for hitting Justin Abdelkader in the head, the Wings will hit the ice at noon hoping to move on from their win over the Blues on Saturday, preparing for a four-game road trip which starts in Dallas on Tuesday, includes a short trip home for staying at home’s sake and then loops through the center of hockey insanity (Toronto) and back through Chicago, all on the way to Long Island (???) and back.
So today, the Wings’ prospects playing at the World Junior Championships in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta take center stage, with Tomas Jurco and Marek Tvrdon’s Slovaks tangling with Teemu Pulkkinen’s Finns at 5 PM EST (on the NHL Network and TSN) and Petr Mrazek’s Czechs facing off against Russia at 9 PM EST (on both the NHL Network and TSN) to attempt to advance to play, well…I’ll let NHL.com’s Mike G. Morreale break things down:
Quarterfinal Round: Monday
Finland vs. Slovakia, 5 p.m. ET
Russia vs. Czech Republic, 9 p.m. ET
Semifinal Round: Tuesday
Sweden vs. Finland/Slovakia winner, 5 p.m. ET
Canada vs. Russia/Czech Republic winner, 9 p.m. ET
Wednesday - Placement Round (5th/6th), 11 p.m. ET
Thursday - Bronze medal game at 3:30 p.m. ET
Thursday - Gold medal game at 10 p.m. ET
So Mattias Backman’s Swedes are the only team assured of a spot in the Gold or Bronze medal games.
• Mrazek’s posted a 2.75 goals-against average and .917 save percentage while winning two of the four games he’s played on a relatively thin Czech team—at a ridiculously high-scoring tournament thus far;
• Tomas Jurco’s posted a goal and 5 assists for 6 points over the four games he’s played for Slovakia;
• Marek Tvrdon’s posted two goals and one assist for 3 points in four games for Slovakia;
• Mattias Backman’s played as his team’s #6 defenseman, but he’s registered 3 assists and a +5 over the course of four games for Sweden;
• And Teemu Pulkkinen’s posted 5 goals and 3 assists for 8 points over the course of four games for Finland.
Let’s start with the obvious: It’s hard to suggest that one can make wide, sweeping conclusions based upon one year’s worth of World Junior Championship results, but it at least appears that the Czech and Slovak junior programs have not in fact been decimated to the point of insolvency by the fact that so many of their players choose to play Major Junior hockey in Canada and the U.S. instead of trying to “turn pro” as 16 or 17-year-olds, and while the countries’ split in 1993 did result in massive cuts to sports spending, the Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek notes that a pair of countries which hadn’t produced many hockey prospects for the better part of the last decade have stirred to life:
Both will be underdogs again Monday, as the playoff round begins, with the Czechs facing historic rival Russia in one game, while Slovakia has drawn the Finns in the other. Russia is playing Monday because of an epic collapse Saturday in its final game of the preliminary round, in which they blew a 3-0, two-period lead and ultimately lost to Sweden 4-3 in overtime. If the Russians win over the Czechs, they will meet Canada in the semi-final round Tuesday in a rematch of the 2011 tournament final.
“They have a strong team, but if we play disciplined and don’t take many penalties or stupid penalties, if we play like a team – and hard – then we can win,” said [Czech goalie Petr] Mrazek, who will likely need to the difference maker for his club. “I think the Russians and Czechs, both teams could go to the semi-finals.”
Jiri Fischer, a former NHLer and one of the Czech Republic’s assistant coaches, concedes that while the Czechs continue to prosper at the senior men’s levels internationally, “In the younger groups, we have a lot of work to do. There is a difference in the mindset of parents, and how they raised their kids,” Fischer continued. “[Costs] can certainly be one of the excuses, but I’m not a fan of excuses. It always comes down to motivation and holding kids accountable and showing them how to work, first with the parents and then the coaches.”
Slovakia’s continuing presence in the tournament is even more unlikely than the Czechs’, requiring as it did a massive third-period comeback against the Swiss last Saturday. That was then followed immediately by Sweden’s inspired comeback against Russia, proving once again that, in junior hockey, at this level, where the passions run so high, momentum changes can come with dizzying and unexpected frequency. Latvia and Denmark were out of their league at the tournament this time around, but after that, it was a wild ride throughout the preliminary round. Who knows? The way things have gone, there may be more upsets along the way.
“We knew we had strong team,” said Slovakian right winger Tomas Jurco, who played with Canadian Justin Huberdeau on the Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs last season. “We haven’t gone to the quarter-finals the last couple of years and we don’t know if the next generation is going to make it, so we tried really hard and we were very happy we did it.”
The winner of the Slovakian-Finnish game meets Sweden in the other semi-final, also Tuesday. Slovakia’s task against Finland seems more manageable than the long odds the Czechs face against Russia, as the two former Cold War rivals will be playing a game that Fischer says will resonate for reasons other than history.
“I’m 31. When we were 17, playing in the U-17 tournament, we talked about it in the locker room and we didn’t know what it meant back then – and this is 14 years ago. What was happening after ’68 [when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia], there was definitely a big rivalry, but it really was part of the Communist era. I was nine years old when the Communist regime was over. The guys right now? The rivalry is because the Russians have been very good and because we haven’t had enough success against them in the last few years. That’s where the rivalry stands. I don’t think there are any political issues any more.”
Regarding the Czechs, Petr Mrazek’s enthusiastic celebrations are still the talk of the town, at least as far as the Edmonton Journal’s John MacKinnon and Sportsnet’s Mark Spector are concerned, but I’d prefer to let you read more etiquette-related gabba and focus on Mrazek’s comments about his blacklisting from the Czech team last season for choosing to play for the Ottawa 67’s instead of HC Vitkovice, as well as his take on the Czechs’ challenges today, per the Edmonton Journal’s Rita Mingo:
“Two years ago, I chose to go to Ottawa (of the Ontario Hockey League) and they (the Czech federation) were mad and they told me I couldn’t play for national team,” the netminder explained. “It was a big disappointment for me. My dream was to play in the North America and be drafted by the NHL.”
He’s accomplished both. The Detroit Red Wings selected him in the fifth round of the 2010 NHL entry draft and he’s the starting goalie with the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s. The 19-year-old was as shocked as anyone when — mere weeks before the Czech team’s camp was set to open for the 2012 IIHF world junior championship — he was extended an invitation.
“I woke up, I had a couple of missed calls from my agent and my parents, and I was so happy! There’s just one chance to play for the under-20,” he said.
“We’re going very well so far,” said Mrazek, whose squad dropped a 4-0 decision to Finland on Saturday. “We’ll try to do something (on Monday) against Russia and make it to the semifinal. I’m feeling great here, but the defence and forwards are helping me a lot. We have to win if I want to do some celebrations and if we . . . when we win the Calgary fans will see some, too.”
“He’s an extremely passionate guy,” Czech assistant coach Jiri Fischer said. “Ever since he celebrated after stopping the Canadian penalty shot, there was a lot of misconception about him. A lot of people thought he was showboating. On the ice he’s one of our leaders and he’s not afraid to show it. I think it’s very refreshing when somebody enjoys hockey as much as he does.”
Getting by the high-flying Russians won’t be an easy task and the Czechs know it. Coming off a lacklustre offensive effort against Finland on Saturday — had they won they would have avoided Russia for now — they’ll have to be firing on all cylinders with frequency, while at the same time trying to stymie a potent, always churning Russian attack.
“They’re extremely dangerous every time they touch the puck in the neutral zone,” Fischer said. “They have tremendous strength beating players one on one and we’re aware of that. Every time they cross blue-line they can score out of anything. They have a lot of firepower.”
Keep in mind that I screwed up when talking about Mrazek a few days ago—he’s not Wings property in the, “The Wings have to sign him” sense because the Wings did just that in October, so he will turn pro with the Griffins next season (and it was particularly interesting to note that Wings director of amateur scouting Joe McDonnell suggested that it’ll be Mrazek and Tom McCollum tending the net for the Griffins next season).
As for the Slovaks, playing against the stacked Finns, realistically speaking, means that they’ll have to pull another upset of the one they managed on Friday, as noted by the Calgary Herald’s Allen Cameron, if they are to advance to the semifinals:
For hours afterward, the adrenalin was still flowing. It was New Year’s Eve and Team Slovakia was still alive at the world junior hockey championship, thanks to their stunning reversal of fortune Saturday at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Trailing 4-2 to Switzerland early in the third period of the game that would send the victor into the quarter-finals and the loser into the relegation round, the Slovaks exploded for four goals in a span of four minutes and 29 seconds for a 6-4 win. So as they hit the ice on Sunday morning at the WinSport ice complex in preparation for today’s 3 p.m. quarter-final against Finland at the Saddledome, there was, understandably, some enthusiasm.
“It was a little bit tough (to sleep),” admitted forward Tomas Jurco with a smile. “It was just a great game and all of the guys were really happy last night. But today is a new day, and there is another big game, and we have to get ourselves prepared for it.”
It’s hard to imagine a team being more ready, based on the way they charged into their first world junior quarter-final since the 2009 tournament at Ottawa. It was hard for Jurco to draw a comparison to a similar comeback.
“Maybe the QMJHL final last year in Gatineau,” said the Saint John Sea Dogs sniper. “I think we were down 2-1 (on the road in Game 7), we tied it in the last few seconds and won it in overtime. But this one was kind of bigger, you know? Four goals in four minutes, for my home country.”
As for today’s game…
“We know they’re excellent skaters and they have an excellent power play,” said Slovakian coach Ernest Bokros through an interpreter. “They’re a tough team, but there are no easy teams or easy games at this stage.”
Not only are they ready, but they also believe they deserve to be there, and that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.
“For sure, we are not surprised,” said Jurco. “We knew there was lots of power on our team. We knew we could do something, and we’re showing how strong our team is and how deep our character is.”
Jurco earned the Calgary Herald’s “player to watch” status for today’s game:
Tomas Jurco, forward: The Red Wings’ second-round pick (35th overall) last June is very comfortable playing on this side of the Atlantic. The six-foot-two, 193-pound right winger is in his third season with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs, and is putting career-best numbers on the board. Through 30 games in the Q, he has 21 goals and 45 points, which is just 11 shy of his career-best 56 points, posted last season for the Memorial Cup champions (he had four goals and an assist during the Sea Dogs’ run to the Mem-Cup title). He uses his size and speed to get position on opposing defencemen, and once he gets in the clear, all bets are off. Take a gander at some of his artistry on YouTube, particularly a stunning two-minute display of pure mastery of puck control as he juggles the puck with his stick and makes it do some jaw-dropping things. In the tournament, he’s been as advertised — arguably the Slovaks’ best player this week from start to finish, and one of the linchpins in their stunning comeback win over Switzerland on Saturday to nail down a playoff berth. Interestingly, the Sea Dogs wouldn’t let him wear the No. 13 jersey he now sports until his second season.
According to the Calgary Sun’s Scott Fisher, Jurco’s also the Slovak who’s serving as coach Bokors’ interpeter.
Teemu Pulkkinen and Finland understand that they face a formidable opponent, too, as he told the Calgary Sun’s Wes Gilbertson:
The Finns scored a 3-0 shutout victory over the Slovaks in a pre-tournament tilt at WinSport Canada Athletic & Ice Complex, and head coach Raimo Helminen told reporters afterward a meeting with the host nation was the “best place to start” for his team. Helminen probably didn’t feel that way after watching the Canadians score six unanswered goals to turn it into a[n 8-1] rout on December 26th], but the Finns didn’t let it spoil their trip.
They rebounded with a 4-1 upset victory over the U.S., then a 10-1 drubbing of Team Denmark. On New Year’s Eve, they registered a 4-0 shutout against the Czech Republic to secure second spot in the Group B standings.
“We have the same team. Nothing changed,” Pulkkinen said. “That was just one game and when the game was over, we decided to move on.”
As believers in short-term amnesia (Calgary Flames netminder and fellow Finn Miikka Kiprusoff has perfected the same policy), Pulkkinen and his teammates aren’t putting much stock in their exhibition success against Slovakia, either. The Slovaks didn’t generate much offence in that game, but they’re a physical group and showed some impressive jam with a stirring comeback in their roundrobin finale against Team Switzerland, scoring four times in the third period to erase a two-goal deficit and avoid a trip to the relegation bracket.
They’ll be aiming to avenge their exhibition loss and keep their hopes alive for Slovakia’s first medal at the world juniors since a bronze in 1999. For the Finns, revenge will have to wait. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not on their mind.
“After the first game, we were talking with some of the players that it would be amazing to play against Canada again in this tournament, have a rematch,” Pulkkinen said. “We’ll see what happens. That would be nice.”
Pulkkinen also spoke to the Calgary Herald’s Wes Gilbertson about bouncing back from that 8-1 loss against Canada:
“Well, we have the same team,” noted leading scorer Teemu Pulkkinen. “Nothing really changed. It was just one game, and when it was over, we decided to move on. We had four games, and we had three victories after that, so we’re happy for this situation now. (The Finns learned) That we have to be ready in every game, especially at the start of the games. They scored a couple of goals at the start, and I think the game was over.”
But instead of dwelling on it, the Finns parked it.
“That’s the best way to go,” nodded Pulkkinen. “It’s a short tournament, and you have to be ready for the next game if you lose one game.”
Pulkkinen’s eclipsed Mikael Granlund as the Finns’ “player to watch,” per the Calgary Herald:
Teemu Pulkkinen, forward: The reigning world championship scoring champ (he had 10 goals and five assists last year in Buffalo) and Top Forward award-winner celebrates his 20th birthday today, hoping to propel his Finns to a semifinal showdown with Sweden on Tuesday.
A fourth-round pick by the Red Wings in 2010, Pulkkinen has one of the best shots in the tournament, and while scouts have questioned his skating ability, he remains a tough man to separate from the puck when he’s in control of it.
Pulkkinen, who tied a world junior championship record with a four-goal third period against Denmark last week, also has shown that he can play with the grown-ups. Playing in Finland’s top pro league last season with Jokerit Helsinki, he was a point-a-game producer last season with 18 goals and 54 points in 55 games (his 36 assists broke a club record formerly held by Teemu Selanne) but those numbers have dropped off this year as he headed to the world juniors with nine goals and 22 points in 32 games. His two-way play was thought to be an issue heading into his draft year, but Detroit assistant GM Jim Nill told The Hockey News last spring that Pulkkinen has broadened his game: “He’s a natural scorer, but we were more pleased with his all-around game.”
The Wings will probably sign Pulkkinen and Swedish forward Calle Jarnkrok this spring, but from what the Wings’ brass has suggested, both players will remain with their respective teams (Jokerit for Pulkkinen and Brynas IF for Jarnkrok) until they’re nearly NHL-ready.
Part II: On the scouting side of the equation, Wings assistant GM Jim Nill told the Windsor Star’s Bob Duff that he and the Wings’ scouts will definitely watch some of the World Under-17 Junior Challenge in Windsor, but right now, McDonnell and Nill are eying potential 2012 draft picks at the WJC, though McDonnell told the Edmonton Journal’s Farhan Devji that WJC performances are not the be-all-end-all in terms of assessing 17 and 18-year-old players’ abilities:
But since the world juniors is a tournament designed to showcase the best 19-year-old hockey players in the world, it’s often difficult for draft eligible players to make much of an impact at this level.
“It’s tough for them to show up and be a high end player in this tournament,” said Detroit Red Wings director of scouting Joe McDonnell. “We don’t really base an awful lot on the young kids here.”
Prior to the tournament, the Wings already liked Czech forwards Tomas Hertl and Radek Faksa, and they’re strong play thus far hasn’t really changed that, McDonnell said. On the same token, if there was a younger player who struggled in the tournament, McDonnell said he wouldn’t read much into it.
“We want to see them in their own age group and what they can do there,” he said.
There are a number of things scouts look out for when trying to identify potential NHL talent. Speed, grit, and work ethic are all factors, Gradin said, but there’s no formula. Every scout weighs the importance of each of these elements differently. For [Vancouver Canucks scout Thomas] Gradin, the big two are hockey sense and speed. Like Gradin, McDonnell said “having a head for the game” is one of the most important factors in judging potential NHL talent, but for the Wings nine-person amateur scouting staff, their philosophy is simple. They look for skill.
“If we take a skilled player who’s small, we hope he gets bigger,” said McDonnell, who is one of three Wings amateur scouts at the tournament. “If we take a skilled player with puck skills but his skating isn’t great, we hope his skating gets better.”
That’s the Wings’ M.O. when it comes to drafting players. Skill and a willingness to self-improve over the course of time, in terms of both physical maturity and the mental awareness that hockey skills must be refined though equal amounts of hard work (see: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Valtteri Filppula as models thereof) are the traits most important to the Wings. They’re trying to find players who will grow into bigger, better and more mature players and people, aiming to project how the players might turn out when they’re 21, 22 or 23 instead of looking for the most impressive players based on their performances right now. They try to assess both tangible and intangible traits and make educated guesses while shooting for later-in-the-draft-round and late-round picks.
I can’t quote the whole article, but McDonnell also reveals the software which the Wings use to file scouting reports and share observations online (I’ve watched the conspicuous gents in track suits, and they tend not to take many written notes while they’re at the rink), he talks about the fact that the Canucks and Gradin just happened to see Alex Edler at the same time as the Wings did, and drafted Edler before the Wings could snap him up (the Wings picked Johan Franzen as a consolation prize), but I’ll add one more quip about Petr Mrazek which reinforces the concept that the Wings have no problem drafting smaller players who they hope will fill out on and off the ice:
“With Mrazek, he’s grown quite a bit since his draft year so maybe teams shied away because he was a bit on the small side,” McDonnell said. “Datsyuk was another one. He was just a little runt. He was skinny, like 160 pounds, and he didn’t look like much. We got lucky with him.”
Part II: Regarding the big game taking place today, outdoors: The Wings’ press very heavily reinforced the national press’s suggestion that they’d like to host a Winter Classic, preferably at Comerica Park, in the near future, but NHL chief operating officer John Collins’ comments that said game would involve the Wings’ plans for a new rink, as well as his desire to hold another Classic in the vicinity of New York City first, suggest that we’re looking at a 2013-2014 season or 2014-2015 season Winter Classic as opposed to one which would take place a year from now.
As the Delaware County Times’ Anthony J. Sanfillipo continues to infringe upon the Wings’ copyrighted moniker of “Hockeytown,” echoing the sentiments made by Flyers owner Ed Snider recently…
It’s worth noting that Chicago Blackhawks president John McDonough is very heavily lobbying for a repeat visit to Chicago, pointing out that the Blackhawks offer one approach to marketing their team that the Red Wings, who tend to keep players’ personalities at arm’s length, do not, all while speaking to the Chicago Daily Herald’s Tim Sassone about the fact that the Blackhawks would be much more receptive to the “24/7” treatment:
McDonough “absolutely” believes a team’s personality is a factor in the Winter Classic selection process and that the organization goes out of its way to showcase the personalities of players.
“We have an obligation to humanize these guys and have a little fun with it at the same time,” McDonough said. “There is a lot of personality on this team. I think we treat our players well, but our players respond in kind. They have a really high get-it factor. We’re the fourth sport in Chicago and the fifth team, so we have to be really humble, really hungry, really creative, really innovative, and we need our players to engage.
“That Blackhawks (Christmas) TV show, that’s gone everywhere,” McDonough said. “Our players received texts from all around the world. If you take a look at it, probably no one had ever seen that side of John Scott, Michael Frolik, Marian Hossa, Sean O’Donnell. People ask me how did you get them to do it? It’s because of the relationship we have with our players.”
Most of the article involves warm fuzzies regarding the 2009 Winter Classic with heavy-handed suggestions that the Blackhawks merit another hosting of the event in short order, and Sassone made sure to even grab an endorsement from Wings coach Mike Babcock regarding the Hawks’ self-promotional machine:
“Playing here at Wrigley Field against the Hawks, I mean, they were a great team then and they’re a great team now,” Babcock said. “The way they did it, if you remember, it was kind of when Mr. McDonough had started here and from that point they’ve taken over this city. “It’s unbelievable what they’ve done. They’re a marketing machine. So I thought they used that for a real spinoff.”
The speculation is if the Red Wings get the 2013 Winter Classic, the game will be played at either Comerica Park, where the baseball Tigers reside, or at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.Make no mistake, the Red Wings want the game.
“I’d really like to have one in Detroit, but they don’t ask me,” Babcock said. “I’m hopeful. We’re a good franchise. We’ve got a good market. We’ve got a good brand. I’d like us to have one, but I think there’s a whole bunch of teams in the league lined up for that.”
The Hawks certainly are one of them.
“The No. 1 thing here is we want to host the Stanley Cup Finals first, but the Winter Classic would be second,” McDonough said.
I hate to say it, but the willingness to very overtly market one’s city, facilities and especially its players, and especially one’s willingness to very openly lobby for hosting a Winter Classic, as the Flyers, Bruins, and now the Capitals, Rangers and Blackhawks are doing, play major roles in the NHL’s decision-making process, and as you and I already know, the NHL markets Alex Ovechkin, Henrik Lundqvist and Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews much more heavily than they do Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk or Nicklas Lidstrom.
That’s not a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s also a two-way street, and I guess the best evidencing of the Wings’ tendencies involves going to their web page and noting that they only started posting background images suggesting that fans should vote for Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall and Jimmy Howard as All-Stars in the middle of December, and it was WRIF’s Meltdown, not the Wings, who caught on to the campaigns started by Winging it in Motown and On the Wings and chose to partner with the Wings to drive around town in a bus tour promoting the “Vote for Jimmy” campaign.
And let’s just say that Babcock isn’t a fan of 24/7, as noted by the Detroit News’s Ted Kulfan:
Babcock said he would be comfortable with his team being featured on the corresponding HBO series “24/7” that Winter Classic opponents have had to take part in the last two seasons.
Babcock himself, though, said he would have some reservations about cameras following him.
“I’d be totally comfortable with my team being exposed, not as comfortable with myself,” Babcock said. “I don’t mind them (cameras) with my family. I’m not crazy about them with me. The game is about the players, not the coaches.”
Again, he absolutely growled when Fox Sports Detroit’s Trevor Thompson asked Babcock about being observed in other than “controlled circumstances,” and having his coaching strategies analyzed by outsiders based upon his comments…Well, facing that prospect made him sound like he was Hulk starting to get angry.
As the Calgary Sun’s Eric Francis notes, the NHL has more than its share of alternate targets which might be more media-friendly:
While it’s likely next year’s Winter Classic will be in Detroit, NHL COO John Collins didn’t tip his hand nor sound convinced such a decision would involve having the game played in Ann Arbour’s Big House at the University of Michigan where 110,000 could attend. Instead, it seems he and the Wings are leaning towards a downtown celebration that would see the game at Comerica Park, home of the Tigers, which is owned by Wings owner Mike Ilitch.
Collins did say he toured four venues in New York, including Citi Field (Mets), Met Life Stadium (Giants/Jets), the Yale Bowl (Yale football) and Michie Stadium (West Point Military Academy). Yankee Stadium isn’t an option due to the ever-popular Pinstripe Bowl held there until 2013. Washington will host one in a year or two.
Collins said it’s impossible to suggest there will be an annual Canadian Heritage Classic as they’d quickly run out of venues. BMO Field in Toronto or McGill Stadium in Montreal lack sex appeal, and the NHL Players’ Association would likely have issues with the climate in Winnipeg. Does he envision having two or three outdoor games a year? “We’re not there yet, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.”
Part III: Red Wings notebooks: The Wings remain below .500 on the road, but as the Detroit News’s Ted Kulfan notes, the Wings have done nothing less than kick rears and take names at Joe Louis Arena:
“That’s what you want to do, establish home ice and make this a tough place for teams when they come here to play,” said goalie Jimmy Howard, noting the Wings’ 12-game win streak at Joe Louis Arena.
The team record is 14 consecutive home victories, which the Wings accomplished in 1964-65. Reaching that record will be delayed as the Wings’ next four games (Dallas, Toronto, Chicago, New York Islanders) are all on the road. The Wings don’t get an opportunity to improve their home record until Jan. 12 when the Phoenix Coyotes visit JLA.
As good as the Wings have been at home (15-2-1 overall), they’ve been less than great on the road (9-11-0).
“We seem to be comfortable here,” said coach Mike Babcock, who has been as mystified as anyone as to the team’s substantially different home and away records. “We’re playing well here. That’s good for us. You want to be good at home. We’d like to improve our road record. We’re going to have ample opportunity to do that.”
The trick now is to improve the road record, especially in time for the playoffs in a few months.
“We have to take (the Wings’ confidence at home) on the road,” Howard said.
• Despite getting dinged in the head by Ian Cole on Saturday, Justin Abdelkader scored the game-winning goal and displayed a renewed physical panache while paired with the equally impressive Drew Miller and a resurgent Danny Cleary, and the Free Press’s Helene St. James very accurately suggests that Abdelkader may have swiped the injured Darren Helm’s job as the team’s third-line center (which is fine as the Wings need more speed and grit on their fourth line anyway):
Coach Mike Babcock praised Abdelkader after Friday’s 3-2 loss at Chicago and again after Saturday’s outing, saying, “Abby did a real good job. He played well the last two nights. More ice time and played against good players and played well.”
That’s exactly what a coaching staff wants to see when a player is handed more minutes. Not that Abdelkader, 24, hasn’t been on the third line before; he began the season there, with Helm and Todd Bertuzzi, on what was supposed to be a physical line but which soon was pulled apart because off-season plans never last long once the regular season gets under way.
Before Helm’s injury Abdelkader had been on the fourth line, but he has smoothly transitioned to centering Drew Miller and Danny Cleary, who in themselves have developed nice chemistry. Miller has seven points in his last eight games; Cleary has six points during the stretch.
“We found some chemistry and with Helmer and me and Cleary, and then with Helmer down right now, Abby stepped in and is playing really well, too,” Miller said. “It’s kept the momentum going for our line. He’s been on fire, two goals the last two games.”
Abdelkader told St. James that more ice time has yielded a higher comfort level:
“I’m definitely getting more of an opportunity out there, and it feels good,” Abdelkader said. “Sometimes you feel more into the game when you’re playing those minutes, and I just want to try to do the best I can with my opportunity.”
Having such a potent scoring option, as goalie Jimmy Howard pointed out, means “the other team is thinking about how dangerous your third line has been as of late. So if they keep producing, that’s only going to mean great things for us.”
That’s the theory, as Miller also told MLive’s Ansar Khan:
“We found some chemistry, with Helmer, me and Cleary, and with Helmer down right now Abby stepped in and is playing really well, too,” Miller said. “It’s kept our momentum going for our line. You try to skate and play the system strong, getting above guys, and then transition quick, and pucks have been finding the back of the net. It’s a good way to play hockey, in their zone, and that’s what we’ll try to continue to do.”
“Definitely, getting more of an opportunity, playing more minutes, getting put in more situations,” Abdelkader said. “It feels good. Sometimes, you feel more into the game when you’re playing those minutes. Just want to do the best I can with my opportunity, whether I’m on the fourth line or third line, I’m playing with good players all over the place.”
Said Howard: “I think it just says what great depth our organization has to be able to come in and fit right in and be an effective line.”
“I think Cleary and Miller are real good defensive players as well as offensive players,” Babcock said. “They can play against anybody.”
• We’ll find out today whether Helm or Tomas Holmstrom’s groin injuries have healed enough, or Chris Conner’s broken hand has fused strongly enough, for the Wings’ conservative medical staff to clear them to play against the Stars—and my educated guess is that we’ll see Joakim Andersson and Gustav Nyquist for one more game, with Helm and Holmstrom returning Saturday in Toronto. Holmstrom told Khan that today’s practice represents something of a milestone marker:
“The big test is when you’re skating and push away with the groin,” Holmstrom said. “I will be real disappointed if I couldn’t skate (today) and play Tuesday.”
• And as Khan notes, Johan Franzen finally snapped a scoring schneid on Saturday, and Babcock hopes that Franzen can join Todd Bertuzzi in kicking off scoring streaks as Franzen emerged from a mid-December slumber to return to a power forward’s skating form:
“When he skates and plays like that, he’s going to score a lot,” Babcock said. “Mule’s one of these guys, when he gets feeling it, then he puts up a lot of goals, and sometimes, it goes away for a bit and he always gets it back. He’s a very important part of our team and it was great to see him get one.”
Part IV: Also of Red Wings-related note: I’ll add one more non-overtly-Wings-related item to the Winter Classic mix in pointing out that the Flyers suggested to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun that one Kimmo Timonen merits some Lidstrom-like praise, and as somebody who thought that Timonen was as dangerous as Shea Weber is now with the Nashville Predators, I can’t help but agree with the Flyers’ assessments:
“When you play against him, you think he’s a good player, obviously,” [Andreas] Lilja said Sunday. “But now when you play with him, you get the opportunity to see him every day, it’s unreal how good he is with the puck and skating-wise. He buys himself time, that’s what good players do, they buy themselves time.”
High praise from a Swede to a Finn, I told Lilja, who chuckled. But Lilja was just getting warmed up.
“He reminds me of Lidstrom a little bit,” Lilja said. “Same type—they never really run anybody over and they never get run over—they’re always in the right spot and one step ahead of everybody else. It’s fun to watch him play.”
That’s right, he said it: Lidstrom. There’s no higher standard as far as comparisons go in this era for a defenseman. Similarly, neither defenseman often makes the highlight reel because it’s not about end-to-end rushes or a big bodycheck. It’s about the simple play, the right pass, mistake-free hockey. And like Lidstrom, it’s about quiet leadership, actions speaking louder than words, universal respect in the dressing room.
“Kimmo just goes about his business,” Holmgren said. “I don’t think he’s a real vocal guy, but trust me, he’s a guy that our young players are looking at in terms of how he does things and the way he prepares. ... He’s a role model.”
Unlike the Hockeytown versus Hockeytown spiel, I think the Flyers have this one right.
• As DetroitRedWings.com’s Bill Roose notes, the spate of Wings players taking pucks to the face (Niklas Kronwall, Drew Miller, Darren Helm, Ian White and Patrick Eaves) has extended to the Wings’ prospect pool. As mentioned last week, Ryan Sproul suffered a broken jaw while playing for the OHL’s Soo Greyounds, and headed back to Mississauga to spend six to eight weeks enjoying a liquid diet. Roose updates Sproul’s condition via the reports linked to in the previous sentence by the Sault Star’s Peter Ruicci:
According to The Sault Star, Sproul was injured last Wednesday with 3:52 to go in regulation. He left the ice immediately, and spent the night at Sault Area Hospital.
Sproul’s parents, Phil and Paulette, were at the game, and Thursday morning they drove their son home to Mississauga, Ontario, where he underwent surgery later that day.
Unable to speak, Sproul took to his Twitter account (@sproully93), where Friday he provided the following update: “Just got up here at the hospital. Not feelin so good and my mouth is jammed shut.”
The pain associated with a broken jaw is excruciating and even more of a nuisance if the patient has allergies, like Danny Cleary, who had his jaws wired in Feb. 2008 after he was hit in the face during a game in Toronto.
In order to take his allergy medicine, Cleary’s wife, Jelena, used to crush his pills into powder and put it in his meals, which he sucked through a straw. Not sure if Sproul has allergies, but we know he’s not yet able to use a straw, writing Sunday: “I can’t stand being starved and can’t have anything but soup through a syringe when my family is eating an unreal breakfast.”
Before his injury, the 6-foot-3 Sproul was the Greyhounds’ top scoring defenseman, netting 10 goals with 16 assists and a team-best plus-17 rating in 37 games.
I avoided the pleasure of having jaw surgery for the sake of a procedure which involved removing my uvula, tonsils, trimming my soft palate and re-shaping my throat to cure my sleep apnea (it worked) back in 2001, and while I could move my mouth and speak, I know what it’s like to be enjoying the traipses of soup broth, more soup broth, jello, Carnation Instant Breakfast and the awful, awful taste of liquid Vicodin and other painkillers. Liquid Vicodin tastes like mixing lemon Gatorade with Red Bull and adding mouthwash and bitterness to the mix, and you can imagine what it feels like to have to try and swallow, or deal with indigestion, when your throat is a six-inch surgical scar.
It still is, and I don’t have to worry about snoring or sleep apnea anymore, but let’s just say I sympathize with guys like Sproul and Eaves. Major oral surgery is a miserable thing as there’s simply no body between your nerves and your brain, so the pain is immediate, intense and incredibly distracting.
• Anyway, this is pretty cool: Griffinscentral’s Jason Kasiorek posted a list of the active Grand Rapids Griffins’ alumni who are playing professional hockey somewhere, and the list is 132 players long;
• I won’t name his name, but that guy who charges people money to read rumors made a decent point: we may see early trades this year. I don’t think that the Wings will do anything of particular consequence as Ken Holland’s got a decent amount of forward depth and defensive depth, and the Wings still don’t really know what Ty Conklin can bring to the table, so there’s no need to worry about what the Wings can do back-up wise when they have yet to test the back-up they’ve got, but here’s hoping that Holland can swipe a big bottom six forward from somebody for a draft pick somewhere closer to February 27th.
• Second-to-last, the Sarnia Observer’s Dave Paul noted that one of the Sarnia Sting’s assistant coaches (his name’s Galchenyuk, and his son’s a top prospect for the 2011 draft) and Erie Otters owner/former CBC commentator Sherry Bassin took part in the famous “Punch-up in Piestany,” when the Soviet and Canadian World Junior Championship teams engaged in a team-wide brawl. I couldn’t find a clear clip of the event, but this YouTube clip which pits some fuzzy red-wearing Soviets versus the white-wearing Canadians will offer some familiar names, like Shanahan and Konstantinov:
• And finally, I’ll be out of the office for part of the day today, so I may end up posting a late practice update, and I will be g-o-n-e on Friday to attend a very important appointment, so Paul will be taking a peek at the Wings stuff till I return.
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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.