The Edmonton Oilers visit the one team in the NHL on Thursday night that so far refuses to follow the parity guidelines set out for the rest of the league.
The Detroit Red Wings are on pace for 60 wins and 126 points – supposedly unheard of in the salary-cap era. The Wings hold the NHL record of 62 wins set in 1995-96.
“When someone told me the other day we were ahead of the pace from three years ago (58 wins in 2005-06) I was shocked,” head coach Mike Babcock said Wednesday. “But the league is tight and we have to hope we stay healthy so we can maintain the good pace.”
While the Eastern Conference-leading Ottawa Senators have fallen back closer to the rest of the pack after a rough stretch, the Wings continue to fly high atop the NHL standings at 22-6-2 – going 9-1-1 in their last 11 games.
Just don’t tell their head coach they’re anything special.
“If you think it’s not tight for us, each and every night it is,” Babcock said on a league media conference call. “I would say on a nightly basis, it doesn’t matter who comes in here, or where we’re at, they have an opportunity to beat us, and vice-versa. There’s no question about it.
“We just believe in our group and in each other. We’re a pretty confident and poised group, we feel we can find a way.”
Babcock points to his team’s latest victory – 2-1 at Nashville on Monday night.
“It was our third game in four nights and we were tired,” said Babcock. “We had to play good defence because we couldn’t generate any more offence, we didn’t have enough jump. And I think that’s a good sign of things, you have to go through some battles that get you playoff-ready.”
Detroit is easily on pace to eclipse 100 points for the eighth consecutive season, which would match the longest such streak in NHL history set by the Montreal Canadiens from 1974-75 to 1981-82.
But again, Babcock insists it doesn’t matter.
“In the end, I really believe that there’s going to be such parity that the difference between being No. 1 or No. 8 is going to be hardly nothing. I think there’s going to be tons of upsets come playoff time. So we’re trying to get ourselves ready to be successful for the long term.”
Leading the way once again for the Wings is five-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom as well as the twin offensive attack of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. The latter has 20 points (10-10) in his last 13 games.
“I hear everybody last night on TV while I was watching games talking about (Vincent) Lecavalier and (Sidney) Crosby but the best player in the league right now is Datsyuk without any question in my opinion,” said Babcock. “He’s just upped the ante that much and he’s playing well.”
The Wings are first in the league in offence with an average of 3.37 goals per game and third overall in goals against at 2.17 per game. Their special teams are also very special, ranking fourth on the power play and sixth on the penalty kill.
That’s a recipe for tremendous success.
“Every team has good players, you got to find ways to use them the best way you can,” said Babcock. “The thing for us, obviously, we’ve had good success for a long period of time and there’s a good culture in our room. Our work ethic – I think the bar is set here by Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Lidstrom.
“We have great leadership in people like (Kris) Draper and (Chris) Chelios but those three skilled guys work so, so hard that they set the bar here and everybody else follows.”
The goaltending has also been key. The so-called backup, Chris Osgood, is 14-1-1 with an NHL-leading 1.75 goals-against average and a second-best .928 save percentage. Veteran star Dominik Hasek has had his struggles but has been terrific of late, winning his last three starts while allowing only three goals.
Just don’t call it a goaltender controversy.
“Hasek’s going to start against Edmonton and Ozzie is going to play against Florida (on Saturday),” said Babcock. “The bottom line, if you’re playing good you get to keep playing and if you’re not playing as good the other guy plays more. Ozzie played more for a while where Dom was getting his act back together.”
With Hasek turning 43 next month, it doesn’t hurt to keep him fresh in the first half of the season.
“I think Dom has bounced back and I think he’s going to get better as the year goes on,” said Babcock. “But you have to tip your hat to Ozzie because he’s done a real good of changing his style. He was pretty good last year but he’s even better this year. That’s good for us.”