Pascal Dupuis controls the puck around Brian Rafalski in the Penguins' victory Sunday, prompting coach Mike Babcock to put the Wings through full-ice sprint drills on what might have been an off-day. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
San Jose, Calif.
After playing four games in 5 1/2 days and flying clear across the country to play another back-to-back set tonight against the Sharks and Wednesday against the Ducks, you figure the Red Wings had a nice leisurely day off here Monday, right?
There they were Monday afternoon, skating full-ice sprint drills for a good 30 minutes.
"We have to skate better," coach Mike Babcock said. "That's not a physical thing, that's a mental thing. Our engagement and our execution have to be better if we are going to play at a high level."
Here's what has happened. Over the past month or more, the Wings have had five top-end players return from injuries. Tonight, Tomas Holmstrom will make it six, returning after missing 13 games because of a broken bone in his foot.
But, as the skill level of the team has increased, the speed and efficiency has dropped off. The Wings have yielded an uncharacteristic 36.6 shots on goal over the last six games.
"It's great that all this skill is back, don't get me wrong," Babcock said. "But we've got to get them skating. It's great to come back but you've got to play at an NHL pace. That takes time and the way this schedule is, the inability to practice doesn't help them."
Thus, the short, hard skate here Monday.
"We're not only giving up a lot of shots, but we have no rhythm to our game," Babcock said. "By that I mean, when you are turning the puck over, you never get skating and you look slow. It's execution. When all of a sudden we don't know how to pass a puck or be in the right spots -- that's mental."
In other years, this could be written off as just the midseason blues. Not this year.
"Every year you have lulls, you have stretches where emotionally you just aren't there," Babcock said. "But we have to understand, we can't afford a lull. We have six games left before the Olympic break, and they are huge for us. We need points."
The Wings began the day in ninth place in the West, one point out of seventh and four points out of sixth. But, oddly enough, it might be a bonus to be playing the No. 1 Sharks on Tuesday. The Wings have beaten them twice this season.
"We seem to play our best games against them," captain Nick Lidstrom said. "I think we've done a good job playing smart defensively, keeping them out of the middle and just being solid against them. Plus, they are one of the top teams in the conference, a team you always want to measure yourself against."
Or, as Babcock put it, "One of the reasons we play so well against them is they get you ready. They're a good enough team that you're scared of them so you get ready. But I think you're supposed to get ready yourself."
The Wings dodged another injury bullet on Sunday in Pittsburgh. Niklas Kronwall was back on the ice Monday skating pain-free after seemingly injuring the same knee that had kept him out for two months.
"Yeah, it felt OK," Kronwall said. "It felt good when I woke up, and actually last night after the long flight it felt better than I thought it would. I think I will be fine."
Said Babcock: "What happens when you've been injured and you get hit on it that first time, you panic. You can't blame a guy. He's been out all that time and then it's like, 'Here we go again.' Good for him and good for us that he wasn't (injured)."
Tape to tape
Babcock said he will decide today on the line combinations. He split up Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for the second and third periods on Sunday. "We had a much better push in the third period, but was that because the lines were that way or was it because we were mentally engaged and we dug in," he said. "I don't know the answer to that."
... Babcock on Holmstrom's return: "He's fired up to play the game and we need that."
By the numbers
1: Goals scored against the Wings by Sharks Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley, who have 80 on the season
-7: The Wings' goal differential in 5-on-5 play this season
10-0-2: The Wings' record when they score four or more goals
Overtimes and shootouts haven't been special for the Wings this season, while the Penguins have flourished in them.
Osgood: Four wins to 400 for his NHL career
Zetterberg: Four goals to 200 for his NHL career
Lidstrom: Five assists to 800 for his NHL career