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How the Red Wings became the NHL's hottest team — and why it might not last

The Red Wings have nine wins in their past 11 games and a better winning percentage than any other team since Oct. 28, and the success has built almost entirely on the strength of Detroit's goaltending.

Seven games, seven losses. That’s the start the Detroit Red Wings had to the 2018-19 campaign. It seemed the precursor to a season that was destined to be spent in the NHL’s basement, the beginning of the Red Wings’ potential pursuit of the first-overall selection in the upcoming draft and a shot at selecting a premier young talent such as Jack Hughes. Things were even so bad in Detroit, the outlook so grim, that Arby’s changed its policy for rewarding fans with curly fries, reducing the requirement from a Red Wings player notching a hat trick to the team itself simply scoring three goals.

But somewhere around Halloween — on Oct. 28, to be exact — a bizarre thing started to happen in Detroit. With the Dallas Stars in town, the Red Wings put up a four-spot and skated away with their second win of the season to move to 2-7-2 on the campaign. Two nights later, Detroit posted five goals in a defeat of the Columbus Blue Jackets. And the Red Wings stretched their winning streak to three games two nights later with a one-goal win over the visiting New Jersey Devils.

The winning hasn’t stopped there, though. In almost unthinkable fashion, the Red Wings have continued to pile up the victories. Since Oct. 28, Detroit has the best winning percentage in the NHL, a 9-2-0 record and more points than all but the New York Rangers, who have the benefit of an additional game played. The Red Wings’ winning ways have been highlighted by one-goal victories, shootout wins, overtime heroics and straight-up blowouts. And Detroit has rewarded its fans with curly fries upon curly fries upon curly fries. We’re talking 10 of the past 11 games.

So, how exactly did a seemingly moribund team come back from the brink to become the NHL’s hottest? The answer lies between the pipes.

Over the past four weeks, the goaltending duo of Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier has been impeccable, hands down the best one-two punch in the league. Numbers alone tell the story, too. While there may be a few regrettable goals that have slipped by here or there, Bernier, who kicked off the hot streak in Detroit with 28 stops on 30 shots against Dallas, has managed a .933 save percentage over four games across the past month or so. Howard especially, though, has been lights out. In seven starts during this run, Howard is sporting six wins and has bettered Bernier with a .936 SP. And combined, the duo has stopped all but 26 of the nearly 400 shots they’ve faced since the late-October defeat of the Stars, good for a .942 SP.

To put the strength of the Red Wings’ goaltending in recent weeks into context, consider that the only clubs with better 5-on-5 SPs than Detroit since Oct. 28 are Columbus and the Toronto Maple Leafs. And at all strengths, the Red Wings leap ahead of the Blue Jackets and into second behind the Maple Leafs. That’s helped along by sound netminding on the penalty kill, in particular, as Howard and Bernier have combined for an .895 SP on the PK since Oct. 28. That’s the seventh-best mark in the league over that span.

There are other reasons for Detroit’s success, of course. The depth of scoring has been somewhat impressive from a team that appeared to have very little heading into the campaign Led by Dylan Larkin, who has four goals and 12 points in 11 games, the Red Wings have eight skaters who have better than half-point per game performers during this run. That includes veteran mainstays such as Gustav Nyquist, Frans Nielsen and Mike Green, but the new generation is also making its mark. Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi, Anthony Mantha and Michael Rasmussen round out the group. But it really has been goaltending, first and foremost, that has made the difference.

However, one can’t help but wonder if the Red Wings’ reliance on Howard and Bernier isn’t a case of Detroit playing with a bit of fire. You see, though the Red Wings have been winning, there’s little about the current streak that appears sustainable. Constantly eking out one-goal victories isn’t a path to greater success, and seven of Detroit’s past nine wins have been by one goal. That’s counting two shootout wins, too, in which the Red Wings aren’t really scoring the additional goal, per se. And speaking of wins in extra time, Detroit has come out on the winning end each of the past five times its gone beyond regulation. That includes back-to-back 3-2 overtime victories, both coming after the Red Wings came from behind to tie the contest in the third period.

It’s not just the way Detroit is getting to the results that’s concerning, though. It’s also the foundation on which this streak has been built, one that appears flimsier than a five-dollar tent. Across their past 11 games, the Red Wings rank fifth-last in the NHL in Corsi percentage (46.4), fourth-last in shots for percentage (45.1), second-last in scoring chances percentage (45) and dead-last in high-danger chances percentage (39.6) at five-a-side. The Red Wings’ success hasn’t been predicated on overwhelming teams. Rather, it’s been the result of the aforementioned otherworldly goaltending and a team-wide shooting percentage of nine percent at 5-on-5, which is the 11th-best rate in the league since Oct. 28.

The truth about the Red Wings is that they’re likely not quite as bad as the team we saw to begin the season, nor are they quite as good as the team that has skated away from nine of its past 11 outings victorious. But as long as Howard and Bernier continue to play as they have since late-October, it won’t matter what any numbers say about the way Detroit is performing. Fact of the matter is goaltending can change everything in the NHL, and the Red Wings are getting it right now.

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