Detroit — It took some time — years, really — but now that the transformation is nearly complete, they all marvel at one thing.
"The speed," said Henrik Zetterberg, the Red Wings' captain.
Of his team, he means. And for a franchise better known for its tradition than its transition game for much of this decade, this is what really stands out now, with the Red Wings emerging as NHL front-runners again.
It's the pace of their play, and the immediacy of their attack, as much as the points they're accumulating, that have them humming a happier — and yes, much healthier — tune heading into the All-Star break.
The Red Wings are tied for second in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the Tampa Bay Lightning, after Tuesday night's 5-4 shootout win against the Minnesota Wild. That's 13 points better than they were a year ago at this point in the season, when the injuries began to mount and the specter of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1990 really began to take hold.
It's also fair bit better than even the men in charge envisioned six months ago, after coming up empty in free agency, something coach Mike Babcock admitted after watching his team blow a three-goal, third-period lead Tuesday and then notch a rare shootout win.
"Around July 5, when not much happened this summer, I was disappointed — just like a few of my veteran players who called me were disappointed, too," Babcock said. "I don't think any of us would've believed we'd be in this spot, the general manager and myself included."
And yet here they are, right where they need to be, bound for a welcome five-day break with a five-game winning streak — their longest in three years — and buoyed by their organizational progress.
To become legitimate Stanley Cup contenders again, they knew they'd need to go the homegrown route, which they most certainly have. Of the 20 players in uniform for Detroit on Tuesday night, 18 were either drafted or signed out of college by the Red Wings.
And to make a serious bid this season, the Wings, who have had home-ice advantage in the playoffs just once since losing in Game 7 the 2009 Finals, knew they'd need a strong first half, particularly with a brutal February schedule looming. (They'll have just two home games the entire month.)
That's certainly what they've gotten as well, even with a few key injuries, including a significant one to goalie Jimmy Howard, the team's lone All-Star selection, who went down with a torn groin muscle Jan. 10.
Long road ahead
"Obviously, we're doing a lot of good things," said Zetterberg, who singles out Detroit's special teams — ranked second on the power play and sixth in penalty killing — near the top of that list. "But we know it's a long road left. We have to keep winning games. We know that Montreal and Tampa will win games, Boston will win games. We need to keep playing well."
And, well, fast. But that seems a given now for this group, with a regular lineup that features eight players age 25 or younger, including their top two goal scorers and half their defensemen.
A healthy Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk make a huge difference, of course. Don't discount the changes Babcock made with his own staff, either, particularly the addition of assistant coach Tony Granato.
But the youth movement that began in earnest last season, when the roster was decimated by injuries, has taken hold. And so has the way some of those younger contributors approach the game — and think it — which has sped up the entire process for the Red Wings as they continue to rebuild on the fly.
"What's different?" defenseman Brendan Smith said, repeating the question he has heard quite a bit lately. "We're a lot faster. And I think that's just because of the youth that we have.
"It's familiarity, yeah. But I think the biggest thing is we have young guys with quick feet."
And a hard-driving coach — arguably the best in the game — who insists they keep them moving, shift after shift.
The Corsi numbers — possession-based metrics — rate the Wings as a top-five team at even strength, along with Chicago, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay and the New York Islanders. But you don't need advanced statistics to see that.
And while they've always been billed as a puck-possession team, there's something more to it these days, with a system that swarms in the defensive zone and then "when we get it back, we're on the attack quickly," said Tomas Tatar, who leads the team with 21 goals — two more than he had in his 73-game debut a year ago.
Tatar, much like Gustav Nyquist (19 goals), is learning what life is like as a marked man in the NHL, as well as what it means to be a two-way player. But both are top-six talents who possess some necessary traits, among them tenacity to find space in a league that doesn't offer much of it.
Asked about Tatar's scorer's knack prior to Tuesday's game, Babcock nodded in agreement. But after rattling off what he likes about the 25-year-old winger's game, he finished with the thing he likes best.
"He's early in his development," Babcock said, "and he can get a lot better."
Trade deadline looms
So can this team, obviously, and that's where it'll get tricky for GM Ken Holland from here. The March 2 trade deadline is still six weeks away, but if the Wings can keep up this pace, Holland knows he'll have to pick up his own, working the phones to "add that one more piece."
Presumably, the search for playoff reinforcements will center on a right-shot defenseman, something Babcock desperately craves and something Holland tried in vain to add last summer. So you can expect plenty of chatter involving names like Mike Green, Zach Bogosian, Jeff Petry and so on, until then.
But regardless of whether Holland decides to make a move or stand pat, this much seems clear.
More than anything, Smith said, "We just know we can't slow down."