Daily Debate: Wings need to win Central

January, 17, 2012
1/17/12
11:43
AM ET
Scott Burnside and Craig Custance discuss the Red Wings needing home ice in the playoffs, the Sabres needing to win and the Leafs needing to avoid an extended skid.

Burnside: Good day, my friend. Well, we know the Detroit Red Wings sure like home cooking, don’t we? The Wings smoked Buffalo 5-0 Monday night, chasing 2010 Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller (man, does that seem like a million years ago, no?) to win their 15th straight home game, breaking a franchise record that had stood for 47 years. The Wings are 18-2-1 at home, which merely highlights the need for them to win the Central Division if they’re going to have a good shot at a long playoff run in the spring. Or, at the very least, they need to finish ahead of either St. Louis or Chicago and own home ice at least in the first round because the bottom line is that the Wings are a much different team on the road, less assertive and less dynamic, as their rather tepid 11-13-0 record away from The Joe suggests. Weird, no? Last season, the Wings were a team that struggled at home and actually won more road games than home games. That’s going to be an interesting trend to watch in this second half, especially given the tightness of the Central. Even with the win, the Wings remain in fifth in the Western Conference, a point behind Chicago (fourth) and a point behind St. Louis, which scored a late goal to beat Dallas 1-0 Monday night. The Blues currently hold down the top seed in the conference. Still, good on the Wings, who also looked good in beating Chicago at home in overtime this weekend. Veteran Todd Bertuzzi continued his hot hand Monday with a goal and two assists after scoring two in the win over Chicago.

Custance: Yeah, Bertuzzi's goal was a beauty; after being denied once by Miller, he went to the backhand for the goal. The game was a great example of why the Red Wings are clicking at home. Pavel Datsyuk's skill was on display with an incredible pass to Johan Franzen for a goal, and a calm, confident Jimmy Howard made the big saves when he needed to. I asked a visiting scout to assess Howard's game, and he concluded that Howard is the "most consistent goalie in the NHL day in and day out." That's pretty high praise.

On the flip side, you had a Sabres team that hasn't consistently put together consecutive good performances since the fall. What a disaster. Owner Terry Pegula was at the game and couldn't have liked what he witnessed. Ryan Miller's frustrations boiled over after the game, one that included relatives in the stands watching to see him take on brother Drew.

"It's embarrassing," he said. "I got family, friends, everybody came to watch Drew and I play. At least they got to watch Drew perform."

To me, something needs to give in Buffalo. A trade. A coaching change. Something.

"It's not my decision," Miller said. "If it's going to happen, it's going to happen in the locker room. If you guys really think there's any kind of trade made anywhere that's going to affect this team any more than we can affect it in this locker room, you guys just -- I don't know. I don't know what to think."

Yeah, the frustration level was high in the Sabres' room, as well it should be. That's nine straight road losses for Buffalo. You have any solutions for the struggling Sabres?

Burnside: The Sabres remain one of the most mystifying teams in the NHL. I wasn’t seduced by the Pegula spending orgy into thinking they were Cup contenders, but I certainly figured them to be a middle-of-the-pack playoff team. You know how we’ve been questioning the leadership on teams such as the Washington Capitals and, perhaps to a lesser degree, the San Jose Sharks the past couple of years, well, for me, the Sabres have been the poster boys for a leadership vacuum. It can’t all fall to Ryan Miller, who, as you noted, seemed like a guy at the end of his rope Monday night. Where is Thomas Vanek in all of this? Or Derek Roy? Or Jason Pominville? Or much-ballyhooed Robyn Regehr?

The problem for Pegula et al is that there are no easy answers -- there never are when you stink as much as the Sabres do. And Miller’s right, you can’t snap your fingers, make a trade and make everything OK. But if ever there was a team that seems to have grown stale overnight, it’s the Sabres, and that means looking for a new voice behind the bench and even beyond that to a new direction from on high. Pegula’s loyalty to GM Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff is admirable, but at some point the reality of what’s happening on the ice dictates change. The other reality is that it’s probably too late to do anything about any of this during the season. The Sabres are in 11th place in the conference, seven points out of a playoff berth. Sure, try to trade Roy if you think you can get decent value, but the real changes for the Sabres look as though they will happen in the offseason, which for them will begin April 8.

Custance: I had a good chat with captain Jason Pominville before the game, and he pointed out that the Sabres have battled back in the standings in the past, including last season, when they rallied to make the playoffs and probably should have won in the first round. Like many of his teammates, he doesn't want to see any drastic changes made to right the ship.

"I believe in the group we have, the coaching staff and everybody in the organization," he said. "I know we're a better team than what we're showing right now. To me, that's the disappointing part of it."

It doesn't get any easier for the Sabres, either. They left Detroit on Monday night for Chicago, where they'll face the Blackhawks on Wednesday, then it's on to play the Jets in Winnipeg on Thursday. As we know, Winnipeg isn't an easy place to play, especially for a team that can't buy a win on the road.

"It is a crucial part of the schedule, definitely," Pominville said. "We're on the road to the All-Star break. Playing some teams that have been going really well. I'm not going to lie to you, we've dug ourselves a pretty tough spot. It's basically crunch time, playoff time from here out."

And that was before they got steamrolled by Detroit. The players realize the urgency to win, they just don't appear capable of doing anything about it.

Burnside: You mentioned the Jets, who got a monster road win Monday night over red-hot Ottawa, a game that will serve as an interesting backdrop to tonight’s big game, the resumption of the Battle of Ontario in Toronto. The 2-0 loss to the Jets on Monday was the first regulation loss in the past 10 for the surprising Senators (8-1-1), but they aren’t, at least in my mind, a lock to make the playoffs yet even though they’re nestled nicely in fifth place in the conference, tied in points with Philadelphia and a point behind Boston (the Senators have played five more games than the Bruins). The Leafs, on the other hand, have lost two in a row and looked pretty ordinary in their last loss -- to the Rangers on Saturday night. They have fallen beneath the playoff bubble, although they’re just a point out of the mix.

Avoiding the kind of soul-sucking losing streaks that have marked the Leafs’ play since the lockout will be paramount, and Tuesday’s tilt would be a good place to reinforce that this team is different. The problem is that I’m not sure it is different. It looks as if Tyler Bozak will return to action and see some time with struggling offensive leaders Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on the Leafs’ all-important top line. And James Reimer, who’s been terrific against Ottawa, will give Jonas Gustavsson a rest in goal. Should be a fun night at the Air Canada Centre. So, who do you like? Me, I like the Senators to bounce back. Call it 4-2 Ottawa.

Custance: Put me down for a Leafs win, and you can buy me a pop during All-Star weekend if I'm right. I think Toronto is a playoff team, and it can't afford an extended losing streak at this point in the season. Bozak had good chemistry with that duo and might be just the spark to get Lupul and Kessel going again. This game should go a long way in revealing which of these two teams is better prepared to make a playoff run in the second half. I'm looking forward to it. Well, Scotty, it's been fun. Until next time.

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