Coaches, teams adjust to league’s tight parity
Newark, N.J. — Entering play Monday, the top 10 top teams in the Eastern Conference were within eight points.
In the Western Conference, seven teams battling for the last few playoff spots were within two.
Tight? You bet, and it is the talk of the NHL.
Amid the Red Wings inconsistent play, if it feels a bit like the stretch drive to the playoffs is beginning two months early, there is a reason.
“That’s the NHL every single night,” coach Jeff Blashill said of the close play in which teams search for the tiniest edge.
“I think every single night we better compete at a high level, we better manage the puck well and then we’ve got to make a play or two more than them.
“That’s what it comes down to. It’s not huge differences, it’s little things.”
So many teams are so evenly matched that games, and perhaps playoff fortunes, are decided by the narrowest of margins. A detail in defensive coverage here. A narrowly-missed scoring chance there.
It is easy to envision how a confounding deflection could mean the difference between golf and fishing in mid-April and playing on.
It certainly is a lot different than what Red Wings fans became accustomed in the Stanley Cup years. Then, the Ilitches’ generous spending on salaries and terrific scouting catapulted the team, and a good portion of the other owners failed to keep pace, resulting in yearly bouts of hopelessness for their franchises.
Long gone are the days when a fairly mediocre performance by the teams of Yzerman, Lidstrom, Fedorov and Shanahan would, with some consistency, result in victory.
As the Wings rebuild on the fly, the new reality affects expectations.
It is all by design.
Essentially, the other owners got tired of the Ilitches and their club, and few others, dominating the game.
Parity became the order of the day, enforced under a crusade by the owners and their enforcer, commissioner Gary Bettman. It made good business sense for a professional sports league and its franchises.
After establishing the salary cap, the results are clear: The campaign worked.
Some impact was noticed immediately. A decade later, the league is locked down.
“The standings are tight,” said Petr Mrazek, who was to start in his third consecutive game in goal Monday for the Wings and whose unflappability, a handy weapon in the current circumstances, is considered among his strongest assets.
“Every game is a big game with the big points on the line. We have to play smart and hard, and to try every night to bring some points home.”
To a considerable degree, it is affecting how the game is coached and played.
“I just think it’s an every night league,” Blashill said. “I’ve talked to lots of people and it is amazing how close the league is every single night.
“So, you’re going to go through some rough patches.
“As I said to the team two days ago, everybody goes through rough patches. The ones that find a way to near the top of the standings are the ones that persevere through it. So we better be ready to persevere through it.
“I’m sure we’ve got tough days ahead. We better keep plugging.”
In general, the participants like the intense competition. It is what athletes do, and the more pitched the battle the more enjoyable it all is.
An injury, like the one that kept former Wolverines star and top scorer for the Devils, Mike Cammalleri, out of the lineup Monday, is all the more significant — even though it is a game in early January and especially with the Wings and Devils potentially competing for the same wild-card spots.
But, Devils coach John Hynes uttered no complaint, and welcomed the intense competition.
“Yeah, for sure, I think it makes it exciting,” said Hynes, the only coach younger than Blashill.
“I think every night every team feels it has a legitimate chance to win, and that’s good. I think it makes the games competitive. It keeps all of us, players and coaches accountable.
“The more competitive the league is, the more competitive the games are. And you have to have your attention to detail and your consistency of how you play is really, really important when it’s this tight.”
It is precisely that consistency that has eluded the Red Wings much of the first half. Even amid their 13-game point streak from Nov. 16-Dec. 11, the frequent squandering of leads evidenced the volatility of their play.
Now, amid a 3-5-2 stretch, the dip in performance is all the more noticeable.
So, Blashill coaxes them to keep their competitive energy at a peak, take care of the details and limit their turnovers.
“And, obviously, we want to win the special teams battles,” he said. “That’s an area I think we could improve in.”