It hasn’t been an easy year in Hockeytown. Although it was a shortened year due to the lockout in 2012, this year’s Red Wings roster changed over more than an average 82-game season. The Wings were are among the league leaders in man games lost to injury. Before Saturday’s regular season finale in Dallas, the Wings racked up an astounding 241 man games lost in 47 games. With the 3-0 win over Dallas, the Wings were amazingly able to clinch their 22nd consecutive playoff appearance, and this years berth can be directly attributed to the coaching job done by Mike Babcock.
Midway through this season, I questioned Babcock’s line groupings and why certain players (Justin Abdelkader) were getting a ton of playing time even though they weren’t producing on the score sheet. Big mistake. Why couldn’t I just trust what Babcock was doing? I mean, Abdelkader had a mere 3 points ‘midway through the season when he was moved next to Pavel Datsyuk because of injury, so it seemed like a head-scratcher. But Babcock knew what he was doing, and now the Datsyuk-Zetterberg-Abdelkader line is one of the hottest lines in the NHL. Abby’s toughness and willingness to go to the net has proved to be a wonderful compliment to the skill of Datsyuk and Zetterberg as the Wings made their playoff push.
But it’s not only the Abdelkader decision that should make Babcock a contender for coach of the year. It’s how he handled his young forward talent and the revolving door on the blue line that makes it one of the best coaching jobs I’ve seen since Scotty Bowman was at the helm. The play of rookie Danny DeKeyser has seemed to solidify the defense, and Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith have continued their strong play. It was the hard decisions of benching Ian White and sending Brian Lashoff back to the minors that seemed to really pay off. Grouping Damien Brunner with Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson has given the team the secondary scoring threat needed to be a true contender for the cup.
The record doesn’t indicate how well the Wings played during the last month of the season. Sure they won the last four to get in, but they’ve looked like the Wings of old over the past few weeks and have dominated games for long stretches with their puck possession style and smothering defense.
Although the roster as-is has been playing excellent hockey over the past two weeks, the return of veterans Mikael Samuelsson and Todd Bertuzzi could have a major impact later in the first round and moving forward. With all of the injuries they’ve struggled through this season, the Red Wings are getting healthy at the right time. Their depth will have a major impact on just how far they can go.
Mike Babcock will still have some tough decisions to make during this upcoming series with the Ducks. Should he stick with the youth that got him here? Or should he put his trust in veterans ready to return from injury? It will be interesting to see if Bertuzzi will return sooner rather than later, as his size seemingly will be needed against a bigger and more physical team. I expect that no matter what decision coach Babcock makes, it will be the one that gives this team the best chance to win.
For the first time in over two decades, the Wings come into the playoffs under the radar as underdogs and it’s a position that may set them up for a deep run towards Lord Stanley’s Cup. Remember that in the NHL, lower seeded teams regularly make deep runs in the playoffs. It was just last season that the LA Kings won the cup as the 8th seed. I believe that Anaheim is a perfect match up for the Wings and I expect it to be a long series that the Wings will take in six or seven games.
The Wings won the season series against the Ducks, winning both games in Anaheim and losing their only meeting at the Joe.
My prediction: Wings in six games with Jimmy Howard being the MVP of the series.
Here’s some highlights from the Wings-Ducks match ups from this season.