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November 21, 2011 :: 12:10pm ET
Wings won't back down
 The Detroit Red Wings aren't about to throw in the towel, despite their slow start to the season.

LOS ANGELES -- The struggling Detroit Red Wings entered Staples Center on Saturday in the midst of their first -- and up to that point, unsuccessful -- Western road trip.

There's a lot of adjectives in that last sentence you've rarely seen juxtaposed to the Winged Wheel, eh? But facts are facts, when they laced 'em up on this day, the standings yawned a record of 9-7-1 with a "10" next to the conference standing designation.

While things have been peachy keen inside Joe Louis Arena (7-2-1), their 2-5-0 record while staying in hotels and flying on charters is far below the very high expectations set of one of the NHL model franchises.

If you've followed this franchise if at minimum from afar, you know what comes next.

They're too old. They're too injury prone. Todd Bertuzzi deserves it.

The Wings rolled into L.A. in the midst of a season that can only be categorized as a roller coast. Winning streaks and losing skids dot the 'results' part on their schedule; if they dropped another one it would have equaled a six game road losing streak that dated back to December 1987. They were crushed Thursday night in San Jose by a team that was better in every facet of the game and this was the time for a statement game.

While it's still early, the Central Division looks to be a dogfight this season. The arch rival Chicago Blackhawks could revert to the Stanley Cup form of two seasons ago, the Nashville Predators will be tough with one last ride of the current roster and the St. Louis Blues have tuned in Ken Hitchcock after tuning out Davis Payne.

No Columbus Blue Jackets mention here, sorry.

Things didn't look much brighter on this blustery November afternoon when Mike Richards on a torrid pace after adjusting to his liberation from all this Philadelphia, potted an unassisted shorthanded goal less than seven minutes into the contest. Before any angst settled in on the Detroit bench Pavel Datsyuk, in the midst of a curious 12 game goalless streak, returned serve on the next shift to equalize the game.

From there, the visitors were who we thought they were, playing their puck control game to a tee and smothering the Kings in front of Jimmy Howard's cage. Anze Kopitar, on track for a career best season, was stifled by Datsyuk with his first shot on goal coming halfway through the match. The opportunity came via the way of penalty shot, the first of the Slovenian's career and became a game changer when his soft backhand disappeared into Howard's glove. With Howard rebuffing the Kings best punch the Red Wings kept forcing turnovers that resulted in a 4-1 victory that has been the norm for over a decade for this franchise.

While the win didn't elevate Detroit to the Top 8 in a Western Conference that shows Minnesota at the top of the heap on this past Sunday, there was the usual sense of calm in the Wings' room at the end of the day.

Nicklas Lidstrom, a Hall of Famer in every way, gave careful consideration to this up and down season's first quarter.

When asked if the start should be minimized he politely disagreed, "It is 20 games and that's a quarter of the season, it's definitely significant. We've played good defense and Jimmy (Howard) has been great but we haven't been able to score."

To no one's surprise, Lidstrom, at 41, is still a vital component to this team. When he captured a sixth Norris Trophy with a less than dominating season that included a minus rating, more than a few pointed to his reputation as the reason he won the vote over runner-up Shea Weber. While his teammates have run hot and cold, Nicky's been a rock again in the early going, 14 points in 19 matches and a robust +6 that everyone is more accustomed to. With the other Nick, this one minus a C in his name and sweater, fellow Swede Niklas Kronwall prepping to step into the huge shadow cast when Lidstrom departs, the unquestioned leader of the team until he hangs up his sakes is the senior Swede.

Datsyuk, one of the surprising culprits of the offensive woes, seemed no worse for wear on this day. The Kings who have always been a favorite target of the Russian's accuracy proved to be the perfect foil to get back on track. While neither of his goals approached the virtuosity of his Game 7 backhander against the San Jose Sharks last May, it was time for him to get on the board regardless of the degree of difficulty.

"When it's not going good, it's kind of frustrating," after doubling his season goal output in one match. "But it's a good experience. This tough situation will make me stronger later in my career. It's a little bit of a tough time when you play hard and trying to score and it's not going in."

A central focus of Detroit inability to advance past the second round since losing to the Penguins in the 2009 Finals is goaltender Jimmy Howard. Though he's fashioned consecutive 37 win regular seasons, his playoffs have taken the exact path; beat the Coyotes, lose to the Sharks. We thought that Howard wasn't the prime time goalie that could take the Wings to their twelfth Stanley Cup championship until we glanced down at his stats line, his 1.84 goals against average and .930 save percentage has nothing to do with this team's stalling at the quarter pole. He had his worst performance of the season in the Shark Tank that resulted in his being pulled by Babcock but bounced back with a tidy, controlled performance in Los Angeles.

While he's only one game over .500 in his post season career, his .915 and .923 save percentages in two playoff seasons have been good enough to go farther and meet the expectations of championships in Detroit. His talent has never been questioned during his tenure in the organization but only when his conditioning matched his skills did GM Ken Holland consider him a keeper. With the ability to play back to back games makes backup Ty Conklin's job one of the easiest in the NHL.

Babcock, the tough minded coach has always been a long money player, even when his team is underperforming, rarely straying from the proven formula that works in Michigan.

"The story of our year is we've played a lot of good hockey and we found ways to make enough mistakes that we haven't been able to win enough," Babcock said. "You can't continually get 38 shots a game and give up 22 or 24 and not win. Eventually it's going to happen for you. It was great to see Pavel get a couple. He's a goal scorer, wants to score, and wants to feel good about himself.

"It's not like we haven't worked, but the results weren't coming. We can all get down or yell and scream or get mad at each other, but to me that's a waste of time. Be resilient and keep coming."

Roughly 28 hours later, the Anaheim Ducks laid in wait for the old bones to make the trip down the 5 Freeway to the O.C. The home side thought of everything to knock the Michiganders off the track, fowl weather (50 and rain is more 8 Mile than Newport Beach), a power failure (the second one this week OFF the ice for the Ducks) but it was to no avail.

The Wings jumped on the Ducks early and often and forged a three goal lead that was good enough to give them their first consecutive road wins this season and a happy charter home in the bargain.

Those looking for a premature burial of the Red Wings had best find another team. They're smart and tough and if they can stand the rigors of an 82 game marathon, still a dangerous team an opinion shared in their room as well as the opposition's.

"They say every year (the Wings are too old) and nothing really changes. They have guys who play their system really well and as gifted as they are, they're a really good defensive team," conveyed Kings defenseman Matt Greene, who unsuccessfully combated waves of Wings on this day.

Their struggle isn't over, but it seems that parity has hit the Western Conference more than ever this year.

The Blackhawks looked out of sight until they took a snooze in Alberta, San Jose will always be there but they've had so many chances that we're not convinced that they're ready to win a minimum of three rounds and while the Kings have names, they're as inconsistent as Detroit to this point.

Brad Stuart, in his fifth season as a Red Wing, echoes the big picture sentiment throughout the locker room. There's never panic or despair, no calls for trades or changes behind the bench.

"We all know we have a great team," he said. "We talked about how things will go wrong at some point in games and it's all about how you handle it. Today, we did a better job of handling those certain situations where they'll play good, and we know we have to respond."

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.


 

 

Archives:
Nov. 14, 2011 21st Century Fox
Nov. 07, 2011 Feeling Groovy
Oct. 21, 2011 Ain't Nothing Gonna Change
Oct. 03, 2011 The Cup Waddles Back to Pittsburgh
Sep. 28, 2011 Defending the Bad Guy
Sep. 19, 2011 Stealth Ducks
Sep. 04, 2011 Alex Boyd: From the Blueline to the Crooner
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