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Red Wings try to avoid bumps on long road test

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — These games are important.

The Red Wings are one game into a four-game home stand, after which they will have played 23 at home and 13 on the road.

Then, the schedule undergoes a considerable transition.

It would nice to bank a few more points before running up the frequent-flyer points.

They have played the most home games in their long history — 10 in December — and 19 of the first 32 at home. The friendly confines are a factor in their unexpected success.

"Yeah, I'd say so," Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said of the importance of the unbalanced schedule. "In general, I think it's been pretty decent."

And 11-3-5 at home is better, proportionally, than the 6-4-3 on the road.

Eight of the next nine are on the road.

Through the end of February, the Red Wings will be visitors in 19 of 26.

Other elements of their success are the good fortune of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg remaining in the lineup together for long stretches, unlike last season. And, in general, injuries are running at about half of the man-games lost last season.

Meanwhile, the redevelopment of the roster continues apace and, if anything, proceeding better than last season. And a more wiry, fixated Jimmy Howard in net is making a difference, too.

Home and away

But now, one of the five factors, the friendly schedule, is about to go.

If one or two of the other elements dims, the Red Wings will look more like a bubble team for the playoffs, which everyone expected, rather than a squad a point behind the division leader and two behind the conference leader, which they were entering Thursday's schedule.

The Red Wings also began the night eight points from elimination from the playoffs.

At home, they have scored about 2.9 goals per game and given up 2.4, (56-45).

On the road, it is about 2.8 per game, for and against, (36-35).

Their power play, entering last night, was fifth (24.7) in the NHL, at home, and 10th (18.8) on the road.

Their penalty kill was third (91.4) at home, and eight (83.3) on the road.

The last two seasons, since the loss of Nicklas Lidstrom, have brought respectable road records. But the coming two months bring an unusual concentration, including six consecutive road games to start the new year, and another six-game trip Feb. 18-28.

Last season, the Red Wings had two five-game trips. They went 2-3 and 2-2-1.

Overall, they garnered 46 points (18-13-10) at home and 47 (21-15-5) on the road with much the same roster, albeit, a bit more experienced.

While it is a rule of thumb in the NHL that it's tougher to win on the road, if you talk to their coach, he sounds like a man weary of figuring out that home-and-away stuff at age 51.

"I don't know the answer to that," Mike Babcock said. "I don't know which is worse, Christmastime at home or Christmastime being on the road, you know what I mean?

"It's nice to be around. It's nice to be on the road, so you're not around."

Keeping busy

The players also say there are positive and negatives either way, but grant it is tougher winning on the road.

The most common word used was "prepare."

"First of all, nice to play at home — with the fans," Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk said. "Out on the road, you just prepare to be ready every game.

"Out on the road, it's lots of travel, lots of games, lots of energy and more trying to get your battery into everything. Get the charger."

Maintaining energy has a lot to do with good habits off the ice, and some of the veterans said that can be a matter of getting the knack of it.

"We've just got to get a lot of sleep in and all the off-stuff ice taken care of," Kronwall said. "And, once it starts, try to play it simple."

Part of it is keeping busy on the road, away from the hockey.

"I think using your time wisely is important," said forward Stephen Weiss, in his 12th NHL season. "You can get pretty stagnant sitting around the hotel and not doing too much. So, keeping yourself busy.

"And it's easy to stay busy at home, in your element. On the road, sometimes you can get stuck in your hotel bed a little too much.

"But, for the most part, I think going on the road is a great thing for a hockey club.

"You spend a lot of time together. You don't have those distractions you do at home; you just spend your time preparing for the games.

"And a lot of guys with young kids can catch up with their rest on the road, which is huge."

AHL advantage

The more veteran players say the long NHL schedule, with long trips, is an adjustment in the first few seasons. But guys who play in the American Hockey League tend to have a little advantage over guys who jump directly from college.

"I think, because of the AHL, most of the guys are used to the road trips, here, especially because of the bus," said forward Justin Abdelkader, referring to the often-preferred mode of transportation the league.

"The way we travel, the way we fly and where we stay, it's not hard.

"But, it's never easy to win on the road, either way. So the guys have got to be ready, here, to be on an extended road trip.

"I think, so far, we've done good here at home, and now we've got to take our game on the road."

Forward Drew Miller said the usual diversions in a young man's life are more present at home, than the somewhat cloistered atmosphere of the road.

"I think being on the road is a little different," he said. "I think the good thing, maybe with the young guys, is you're all hockey on the road. You're not at home. There's not as much distraction.

"At the same time, it's tough to play on the road in this league, and you've got to be prepared every night.

"For me, it's not much different, now. You prepare every game the same way."

It also is true, however, that for more established players with families, the road can be more difficult.

"When you're out for that long, it's hard to be away from your wife, or a lot of guys have family and kids. It's hard to be away for that long," Miller said.

"And the road gets, well — you get a little sick of it and tired of it.

"But you've got to battle through it, and when it comes to game time, you've got to be prepared and ready to go."