Wings goalie Jimmy Howard has shown signs of breaking out of his slump since returning from a knee injury. (Brandon Wade / Associated Press)
Dallas — Despite a flock of injuries and some subpar performances in goal, the Red Wings remained in playoff position throughout the first half of the season.
But as they begin four days off in warm weather, one game into a critical five-game trip, and as the NHL schedule begins to point toward the Olympic break beginning in early February, they remain utterly inconsistent.
“We don’t win enough. You are what you are. We don’t win enough,” Mike Babcock said. “We’ve got to find a way to win.”
If they can stay healthy, if Jimmy Howard’s play improves and if a lot of young players can find a consistent game in the NHL, the Red Wings are not only likely to make the playoffs, they might even make considerable noise when they get there.
That is a lot of “ifs,” though, eh?
Heading into play Sunday, the Wings were the seventh-most injured team, with 166 man games lost.
They are scoring slightly more than they did last season, but too much less than in the previous one, Niklas Lidstrom’s last season.
They are giving up more goals than in the previous two seasons.
“We don’t score a lot of goals, so we’ve got to find a way to win defensively,” Babcock said.
Their problems can be fixed, if they can manage to avoid the injuries that currently have Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Steven Weiss and Darren Helm, four of their top seven forwards; Jonathan Ericsson, a top-pair defenseman; and Gustavsson, the effective back-up goalie, unavailable for play.
The injuries are staring to bug them.
“Hopefully, it will turn around soon,” said Henrik Zetterberg, who was having one of the strongest first halves of his career before his bad back started barking, with a bulging disc.
“We’ve had a tough first half, and we’re starting the second half here and hopefully guys will come back and start being healthy.”
Health is imperative
On Saturday, Babcock twice made clear his patience with injuries has finally ebbed.
“We need more consistency in the health department,” he said. “We can’t always be on the table in the medical room. Sometimes, you’ve just got to play.
“Especially with the four days off, we can go get freshened up here.”
Plainly upset with the situation, Babcock essentially made clear it must change for the Wings to reach their potential. He is well-beyond the point of avoiding the use of injuries as excuses, but considerably concerned with them as facts.
“We’ve had so many injuries that I’m tired of guys being out and being on the table every day when I walk in there. We need guys to be ready to play, and we need a big push out of our group.”
The wholesale admissions to the M*A*S*H* unit make the difficulties in goal all the more glaring. Defense becomes even more important, and with the Wings skating with so many young defenseman, the roles of Howard and Gustavsson were already huge coming into the season.
Both have had injuries, and Howard slumped for the first time in his four seasons.
The result is a 2.65 goals against average for the team, 15th in the NHL headed into action Sunday. Five teams in the Eastern Conference, the Bruins (2.07), Lightning (2.27), Penguins (2.28), Canadiens (2.30) and Devils (2.42) are performing better.
“The month of November wasn’t very kind and then December wasn’t either, going down with the knee injury in practice,” said Howard, who also suffered a hand injury earlier.
Both injuries seemed to hit about the time he felt he was rediscovering his best game.
“I’m trying to get back into that groove, you know, that groove that I’ve been in for the first three out of four seasons, and the only way I know to do that is to just continue to keep working.”
Howard is key
For Babcock it seems, beyond the injuries, nothing could be more important than Howard’s groove.
Gustavsson helps enormously, but only when healthy.
“We need Howie to get on a huge roll for us here in the second half,” Babcock said. “We need more consistency in that position.”
Howard is showing some evidence of getting there, right now, although only in consecutive games against the Maple Leafs and Stars.
“We’ve been waiting for Jimmy to be Jimmy all year long, and tonight he was back to being what we expect,” Babcock said, Saturday.
Howard improved on his prime weapon, his positional play, and he dealt better with perhaps his major issue, rebound control.
“I thought he was regular Jimmy tonight,” Drew Miller said. “He played well, played strong, made big saves for us when he had to, especially in the first period “He was in good position, but he made big stops and he made saves that other goalies might not make.”
Still refashioning the roster, the Wings have seen it become even more unstable with the injuries. With so many players in and out of the lineup and multiple calls up from Grand Rapids, consistency suffers.
Giveaways evidence the impact.
The Wings currently have the 11th most, after placing 18th in the previous two seasons.
While they have maintained playoff position, as the first wild card heading into play Sunday, the Maple Leafs, Flyers, Capitals, Senators, Rangers, Hurricanes, Devils and Blue Jackets are all lined up on their rear bumper.
But they have defeated the Bruins twice, including once in Boston; and the Avalanche, Canucks and Leafs all on the road, demonstating they can win big games, regardless.
If the injuries abate and Howard excels again, they will make the playoffs and have an impact, there.
But the “regular Jimmy” and improved health are essential..