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Michael Petrella, from the Red Wings blog WingingitinMotown.com, was kind enough to answer a few Stars questions in preparation for tonight's game. Here goes:
Q: Give us a status report on the Red Wings' start to the season. What are some highlights and lowlights of the season so far?
A: Well, it's no secret that the Wings started out slow, going 0-2 in Sweden (games that were viewed by many as "home games"), ultimately going 3-4-2 in their first nine games. That's the worst start in twenty years in Detroit, so -- as I'm sure you could guess -- lots of fans were slamming their fists against the panic button. But, things have begun to turn around. They're 7-1-1 in their last nine and are showing quite a bit more offense than most thought they would (after losing Samuelsson, Hudler, and Hossa in July). Last week, the Wings were 3-0-0, and outscored their opponents 19-6.
Q: Henrik Zetterberg is certainly playing at a high level. What makes him so effective? Is this the best he's played in his career?
A: Henrik Zetterberg is a special player. Not only is he incredibly talented offensively, he's one of the more responsible two-way forwards in the game. His defense might be overshadowed by teammate Pavel Datsyuk, who is the resident Selke winner of the bunch, but it is clear to everyone who watches Wings games that he's respected enough to play in all scenarios.
He's smart, he's fast, he has an unbelievably accurate shot and he always seems to make the right play: whether its taking the shot or dishing to create a better scoring play, and I think that's what makes him so effective. It's fair to say that last week was the best week of Z's career, culminating in the NHL First Star selection. 4 goals and 5 assists in three games works for me.
Q: How has the top line played? Give us a scouting report on them.
A: The thing about the Red Wings is that it can be tricky to define a "top line." In theory, the top line is Todd Bertuzzi, Pavel Datsyuk, and Tomas Holmstrom. Obviously, Zetterberg and Dan Cleary sometimes get some ice time on what could also be considered the top line, as did Johan Franzen before his injury. But the current trio of Bertuzzi/Datsyuk/Holmstrom is a heck of a line. We all know what Pavel Datsyuk brings to the table, and Tomas Holmstrom is the best in the business at parking his rump in the crease and tipping shots. Todd Bertuzzi is a bit of a wildcard because, while he's creating a lot of chances and seemingly gaining confidence every game, he's still not putting pucks in the net as much as I'm sure Mike Babcock would like. He's buzzing though, lots of posts and opportunities.
Q: Looks like the power play has been solid, but the penalty kill has struggled. Why?
A: For the last few seasons, the penalty kill has been a little touchy. It's hard to put your finger on why that is, because the personnel is there: Zetterberg and Datsyuk are bona fide Selke candidates year in and year out, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby are historic penalty killers, young guys like Darren Helm and Patrick Eaves do a fantastic job, and no one can underestimate the defensive corps of Lidstrom, Rafalski, Kronwall, and Stuart. I think that, like many of the question marks in Detroit, the struggles start with the goaltending. For the second year in a row, Chris Osgood is under-performing. New backup Jimmy Howard had a strong week last week, but it remains to be seen if he can be a NHL goaltender on a daily basis.
Also, when Todd McLellan left to be the Sharks new head coach before last season, the special teams in Detroit seemed to take a dip. A lot of fans are quick to blame assistant coach Brad McCrimmon for the defensive lapses and drop in PK, which is an interesting way to look at it.
Q: Give us a few players to watch in tonight's game.
A: Henrik Zetterberg obviously has the hot hand, but Niklas Kronwall is someone who has been putting pucks in the net from the point at a pretty good clip this season. He's got five goals already, which is three more than Brian Rafalski, who is second in defenseman goals on the team.
Jimmy Howard will be making his fourth straight start with Chris Osgood out with the flu. He had two back-to-back one goal games last week, followed by a weaker four goal showing on Saturday. Which Jimmy Howard shows up will be an important thing to watch as the Wings and Stars tussle.
For all the non-Red Wings fans out there, I urge them to watch Darren Helm. No. 43 has been a mainstay on the Red Wings roster for the last two playoff seasons, but this is his first opportunity to play a regular shift in Detroit, and he's special. He's arguably the fastest skater in the league, he hits everything that moves, and although he's not a big guy, he's not the least bit afraid of heading into the corners and doing the dirty work. He's quickly becoming a hometown favorite at the Joe.
Q: With Chris Osgood still dealing with the flu, can you tell us about goalie Jimmy Howard?
A: He will be making his fourth start in a row and seventh of the season. He started out a little slow, but seems to be gaining confidence as the days and weeks go by. He's a fairly large guy, and definitely looks bigger in the net than Chris Osgood does. His biggest issue seems to be controlling his rebounds, which the defense is aware of, as well. The guys who play in front of Howard are doing a much better job of clearing or controlling the rebounds than they were at the beginning of the season.
Q: Any other injuries we should know about?
A: Well, Andreas Lilja is still out (since last March) with post-concussion issues stemming from a fight with Shea Weber of the Predators. Johan Franzen is recovering from a torn ACL and will be out until February at the earliest. Valtteri Filppula, another incredibly talented two-way forward, has just started skating again after breaking his wrist. He'll probably be out until the Holidays. Jason Williams, the third forward on this list, has a long recovery ahead of him after breaking his leg two weeks ago. The injury bug usually bites in February in Hockeytown, but it looks like he got an early start this year.
Q: What else should Stars fans know about the Red Wings?
A: After facing their worst start in quite some time, the Wings seem to be getting it together. They've got a bit of a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde thing going on, and many of us find ourselves wondering which version of the Red Wings will show up -- not only game to game, but period to period. They've been very inconsistent, but the talent is there. It'd be unwise to look past the lineup they ice -- even with the injuries -- but they're also prone to beating themselves this year.