It feels like Rangers-Red Wings never happens. That’s partially because it rarely has until now. The two teams met this season on Oct. 26, but thanks to the lockout last year, they didn’t meet at all in 2012-13 and just once a season prior to that. So when the two Original Six teams meet on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, it will feel more important than a normal regular-season game and that’s because it kind of is. Thankfully with realignment, we will get more than just one Rangers-Red Wings game a year now.
With the Rangers and Red Wings playing for the second of three times this season, I did an email exchange with “J.J. from Kansas” of Winging It In Motown to talk about the Red Wings playing in the Eastern Conference, how they were portrayed in 24/7 leading up to the Winter Classic and what’s been going on with them over the last six weeks.
Keefe: After a long, long time as an Eastern Time Zone team playing in the Western Conference, the Red Wings are where they should be when it comes to alignment thanks to the realignment. The Red Wings might be out of place in the “Atlantic” division, but at least they are in the right place when it comes to traveling. (The Red Wings shouldn’t feel too awkward about playing in the “Atlantic” with Columbus and Carolina being considered “Metropolitan.”)
What were you feelings about the Red Wings’ move back to normality and playing in their own time zone when the plans were announced? And what do you think of the realignment now 46 games into the change?
J.J.: Being honest about the switch to the East, since I’m in the Central Time Zone, it wasn’t really a big deal to me, but I always liked the concept. I especially liked that the schedule-making would adjust to leave the Wings with only two trips out West where we’d have games starting at 10 p.m. EST or later. Ultimately I was happy that the travel schedule wouldn’t be as brutal for Detroit, but this never felt to me as the eventual correction of old wrongs like it has to much of the older generation of Wings fans who didn’t grow up with the Central Division.
This season has been a weird, bittersweet experience for me. I haven’t experienced the weird playoff quirks yet, but I do like the new realignment plan as far as it’s worked on the NHL regular season. The adjustment has come in how I watch games on off days for the Wings. I’ve always preferred to watch division rivals’ games and root for whichever outcome would most benefit the Wings. In doing that, I didn’t watch a ton of Eastern Conference hockey in the last few years and as a result, it’s almost been a culture shock for me readjusting to a bunch of uniforms, players, and styles I to which I haven’t grown accustomed (not to mention half a league’s worth of local announcers). In the West, I can still pick out which line is on the ice for teams based solely on how the forwards skate. I haven’t gotten used to that yet in the East save for a few of the very familiar or standout players (the Penguins, Rick Nash and Phil Kessel).
Keefe: There isn’t a bigger 24/7 fan than me and I hope that my dream of it being stretched into covering a team for a full season will one day be realized. (Kind of like what ESPN did with The Season and the Red Wings in 2002-03 and the Avalanche in 2003-04, only better.) Who wouldn’t want a full season of the show?
Two years ago when the Rangers and Flyers were the stars of 24/7 for their Winter Classic in Philadelphia, it made the show that much better having “my” team be covered in depth for a month. This year you had “your” team as one of the co-stars of the four-episode series. What did you think about how the Red Wings were portrayed?
J.J.: I’d LOVE to see a full season of 24/7 … centered around somebody else. I don’t know if I’m just looking for excuses or my dumb caveman brain is sliding a bit of causation into the correlation between the Red Wings being on 24/7 and the Red Wings playing like crap in the weeks where the HBO cameras were following them around, but it seemed that while the cameras were rolling, the Red Wings were just not comfortable.
Overall, I think HBO did the best they could with the Wings, but I’m caught between wanting to have seen much more and wanting to respect that they’re professional hockey players and stay away from their private lives. I would have loved to have seen more of Pavel Datsyuk, but he’s a private guy and if he doesn’t want to deal with the HBO cameras that much, then so be it.
Keefe: This season of the show gave me a better understanding of the Red Wings and there were three things I really took away from it (aside from disliking Dion Phaneuf more). The first was how strong of a presence Mike Babcock has with the team and the organization. I have long thought that Babcock is the best head coach in the league (and that’s likely why he is also the Team Canada coach), but my opinion was only reinforced with the show and the way he handles managing his team on and off the ice.
The second was how badly the Red Wings have been crushed by the injury bug over the first half of season. Sure, the Rangers lost their best two players in Rick Nash for 17 games in October and November and Henrik Lundqvist for a week in October, and you could throw Ryan Callahan in there too, who has also missed 17 games. But those injuries are nothing compared to what the Red Wings have endured. Seeing Babcock write and re-write and erase the names on his lines and depth chart whiteboard was remarkable and almost made me feel like he was managing the 2013 Yankees and their injury bug. I guess I know why the Red Wings are a point out of the playoff picture.
And the last thing would be the way Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are perceived by the younger players on the team, almost as if the younger players haven’t grasped the idea that they are in the NHL and playing with Datsyuk and Zetterberg. The way the younger players glowingly talk about the duo and look up to them shows how the team has changed and turned over since the two entered the league 12 and 13 years ago.
J.J.: As the Wings have seemingly come farther away from Stanley Cup contention in the last few years, the fan base has grown a bit restless with Babcock. He’s never given the local writers much of a glimpse behind the scenes and has always done a great job dodging attempts to get the kind of glimpses that reporters could run with on a story. We’ve always had a bit of a sense as to when he was either taking blame or sending a message to the media about his players, but without the behind the scenes access from 24/7, all we really had was a picture of a cagey coach who favors veterans to youngsters without any real in-depth explanation. Seeing how he interacted with the team, especially the youngsters, has been a big positive for me this season.
As far as the injuries, I’m among the fans asking for an audit of the Red Wings’ procedures as far as training and conditioning goes. I know that the common joke is that the Red Wings are old, but the rate of injuries and the type that we’ve seen most common (groin) is just disconcerting.
I think personally that part of the younger players idolizing the core veterans was partially scripted to make up for the HBO cameras’ lack of access to Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Hank (our Hank), was featured in that segment where he’s skating on his pond, but that’s pretty much all you got from him. It is very clear that what earned Datsyuk and Zetterberg their way in the NHL was each of their work ethics (even the old guard guys like Steve Yzerman commented on it before they left) so if the youngsters look up to them that much, it’s just the personnel changing around them and not the attitude.
Keefe: It doesn’t seem like a team with Datsyuk and Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson (even a 40-year-old Alfredsson should struggle) and strong depth and secondary scoring options should struggle the way the Red Wings have for the first half of the season. Can the 20-16-10 start to the season and being on the playoff bubble be chalked up as a result of the incredible rash of injuries or is it something more than that?
J.J.: I hate to keep using injuries as an excuse, but the sheer amount of change that happens to the Wings as a result of them can’t be ignored. The Wings’ system is based on puck movement more than grinding and that’s the kind of players they have. when players switch in and out of the lineup or up and down lines, the timing of everything falls off just a little bit and puck possession can suffer. When you have so many injuries that you have to change the system to a more dump-and-chase style, then you’re facing the whammy that is the Red Wings aren’t a team that was specifically built for that system, so they have some guys playing in roles that they’re not as well-suited for.
Despite that, there are three issues which are not injury related which have also combined to hurt the Wings. The first is that the young defensive corps is still learning the ropes and do not deal with aggressive forechecking as well as more-veteran players do. This slows down transition and causes them to spend more time in their own end facing shots. Second, the play of Jimmy Howard has not been as dominant as it has and that has cost them some points. Finally, for whatever reason, the Red Wings are 1-7 in the shootout this year, which has also stripped them of points.
When everything adds up, the Red Wings are not as bad a bubble team as their record indicates. I don’t think that they’re a top contender, but a healthy Wings team that gets even a bit luckier is an upper mid-tier contender at least on par with a team like Montreal or Tampa.
Keefe: The last time the Rangers and Red Wings met (Oct. 26), the Rangers were finishing up their season-opening nine-game road trip and arrived in Detroit with a 2-6-0 record and were coming off back-to-back losses to the (at the time) lowly Devils and Flyers. After giving up a devastating late second-period goal to Daniel Alfredsson with 11 seconds left in the second to give the Red Wings a 2-1 lead, Mats Zuccarello scored just 2:18 into the third to tie the game. Then in overtime, Derick Brassard scored with 13 seconds left to give the Rangers the win and their first win in Detroit since Jan. 30, 1999. Yes, 1999! Once again … that’s 1-9-9-9!
This time the Rangers and Red Wings meet with the Rangers playing their best hockey of the season, despite their 2-1 home loss to the Lightning on Tuesday night (it was the first time the Rangers failed to score more at least two goals since Dec. 10, which is actually unbelievable considering it used to happen every other game). The Rangers have won eight of their last 12, earning 17 of a possible 24 points and taking over the first wild-card spot in the standings. The Red Wings, on the other hand, have traded wins and losses for nearly a month and have won consecutive games only once since the start of the December.
What has been going on with the Red Wings over the last six weeks as they come to Madison Square Garden on Thursday night?
J.J.: The recent play of the Red Wings is a reflection of what we’ve talked about above. Whether it’s injuries, distractions, and flat-out unimpressive play, Detroit isn’t a very good hockey club right now and their recent record shows that. At some point, they’re going to start getting healthier and more consistent and will start stringing victories together more often, but there’s not an expectation that’s going to happen this week. None of the injured forwards are expected back for Thursday’s game and in fact, the Wings will be without one of the best players they’ve had the last few weeks, as Tomas Tatar went back to Slovakia this week to attend his father’s funeral after playing both Saturday and Sunday with a heavy heart caused by his dad’s passing last Friday.