With the Bruins and Red Wings set to kick off their first round playoff series tonight in Boston, we got together with George Malik of Kukla’s Korner where George helps us get to know the Detroit Red Wings.
Bruins Daily: George, thank you for taking the time to help us get to know the Detroit Red Wings. Obviously the Wings had issues staying healthy this season with injuries to guys like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, how did the Wings stay afloat and ultimately earn them themselves a playoff spot?
George: The Red Wings managed to really “stay afloat” despite themselves. Throughout the season the team was incredibly inconsistent when everyone was healthy, and it was inconsistent when players got hurt, but Johan Franzen had some fantastic scoring streaks, when Jimmy Howard struggled, Jonas Gustavsson shone, and between Daniel Alfredsson’s leadership, Niklas Kronwall’s hard work on the back end and the development of “the kids”–Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan and of course Gustav Nyquist—the Wings were able to find their form after the Olympics, minus both Zetterberg and Datsyuk for the vast majority of that time, and earn a playoff spot…If only barely.
In the end, as Mike Babcock would say, Tatar, Jurco, Sheahan and Nyquist “stole jobs,” some of the team’s more…Let’s say “interesting to watch” players (read: frustratingly inconsistent), like Kyle Quincey, Brendan Smith and Franzen steadied themselves, and I’d be remiss to not point out that Darren Helm’s return, even in spurts, gave the Wings tons of speed up the middle.
Now if only Brian Lashoff and Jakub Kindl could steady themselves again.
Bruins Daily: The Red Wings are still not completely healthy, can we expect Zetterberg back at all in this series, and if so, when?
George: If Zetterberg’s back during this series it’ll be a medical miracle. He was just cleared for contact on Wednesday and he skated for half an hour on Thursday. He had the kind of surgery that the Wings hope will extend his career and improve his quality of life as he goes through a rigorous set of stretches and massages prior to and after every practice and game (he’s battled back issues throughout his career), but I’d be stunned if he returns during this series.
Bruins Daily: During the off-season, the Bruins were actively pursuing free agent Daniel Alfredsson. Obviously he chose the Red Wings. How important is Alfredsson to the Red Wings success against the Bruins in this series?
George: Alfredsson’s huge for the Wings. The Wings had a harder time adjusting to the Eastern Conference than the Eastern Conference had adjusting to the Wings—the team’s been playing the same blueprint of hockey for the past 20 years, and it turns out that its opponents were far more ready for Detroit than the other way around—and Alfredsson knows the Eastern Conference’s players better than any other Wing.
Alfredsson has battled some groin and back issues, but by this season’s standards, he’s been relatively healthy, and the players and coach just rave about the fact that he’s able to give them pointers about opposing players and that he’s basically become a playing coach. He also skates like a 35-year-old, he’s got a wicked shot and he’s a fantastic player.
He’s definitely no Jarome Iginla—Alfredsson isn’t the same kind of physical player or power forward—but he’s fit into the lineup and locker room very well, he’s happy in Detroit, and during a season in which a whole bunch of players have “stolen” or “lost” jobs, he’s going to be welcomed back if he wants to do this again at 42…
And he knows Chara, he knows Rask, he’s played against Julien’s system and he will share that information with the Wings (though there aren’t really any secrets anymore thanks to digital video scouting).
Bruins Daily: The Red Wings had great success in the regular season against the Bruins, winning three of four. What did the Red Wings do that made them so successful against the Bruins?
George: I think the Red Wings played the only way that one can to neutralize the Bruins’ pounding forecheck and stifling defense—they take the puck away from Boston. It’s the only way the Wings managed to battle the big, nasty physical teams in the West, and puck possession really is a system of play that the Wings have been playing since Scotty Bowman traded Ray Sheppard for Igor Larionov back in 1995. The Wings play the system, the Grand Rapids Griffins teach their youngsters the system under Jeff Blashill and it’s survival for the Wings. Get sticks and legs in passing lanes, steal the puck, send it up ice via one-touch passes to forwards skating through the neutral one with speed, either carry it in or dump it in to forecheck opposing defensemen and try to sustain possession and control to keep it as far away from your own net for as long as possible.
Bruins Daily: Despite battling injures all season, goaltender Jimmy Howard had himself a pretty solid season. Is there enough confidence in Howard that he has what it takes to take down the Bruins?
George: There’s confidence in Howard, but he’s got some reputation-restoring to do. The Red Sox fans may appreciate this comparison—Howard had a bit of a “Justin Verlander post-contract extension year” in terms of his performance and durability. Howard hasn’t had a great year by any stretch of the imagination, and while I’ve tried to defend his play, I can’t deny that he’s been anything but consistent. Between knee issues, groin issues, and just seeming to try far too hard to prove that he was worth the 5-year, $31.75 million contract extension…
He’s given up soft goals, weird goals, his rebound control’s been an adventure and he went so far as to change up his leg pads and blocker during and after the Olympic break. His time playing goalie caddy for Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick with Team USA seemed to re-energize him and seemed to allow him to settle down, but there are some concerns among Wings fans as to whether Howard is the long-term answer in goal.
The Wings have a superb prospect in the acrobatic Petr Mrazek, and in many fans’ eyes, the 30-year-old Howard will cede his net to the 22-year-old Mrazek sooner than later. Mrazek’s starred in the AHL, and he may or may not graduate to NHL duty as Howard’s back-up next season. I’m not so sure that Howard’s job is in jeopardy, but I definitely think that this is a year where he’s going to have to prove that he’s still “the man,” and that’s going to be hard to do against Tuukka Rask.
Bruins Daily: In each series there’s that one guy that will drive the opposing teams’ fans absolutely nuts-see Brad Marchand. Which Red Wing will aggravate Bruins fans the most?
George: The Wings don’t really have one specific agitant, but I don’t think that you’re going to like Niklas Kronwall very much a week from now as he’s got a penchant for big, booming hits; Luke Glendneing is an a fourth-line guy who’s earned an NHL spot by adding an edge to his game; Justin Abdelkader isn’t friendly, Johan Franzen gets very, very annoyed when people go after his head (he’s battled concussion issues) and I think that Brendan Smith’s temper is going to surprise you (and yield Wings fans lamenting his temper).
The other thing about the Red Wings’ fans in general is that you’re going to be convinced pretty soon that we’re downright whiny about refereeing. That doesn’t have anything to do with the Bruins: between Tomas Holmstrom’s long history of negated goals due to what I’ll call creative interpretations of goaltender interference and the fact that…How do I want to put this?“Detroit vs. Everybody” t-shirt is an accurate representation of how we feel about being the butt of everyone’s jokes.
Detroit’s the bankrupt and crime-ridden heart of a sprawling metropolitan area larger than Delaware, and over 4 million people live there—with only 760,000 or so of those residents living in Detroit itself. We’re very proud of who we are, warts and all, but we’re a bit paranoid.
Bruins Daily: Alright George, last but not least. Who wins? How many games? And why do they win?
George: I think that this will go six or seven games. I wouldn’t be a homer if I said that anyone but the Wings would win—due to their ability to dissect the Bruins’ defensive machine, and via some earned luck–but I really don’t know what’s going to happen.
The Wings seem to be the one team that knows how to take advantage of the Bruins’ weaknesses—their transition game and ability to crank up their stifling team defense against a puck possession team—but Boston’s far deeper, especially on defense, and on paper, this shouldn’t be a contest.
That’s why these games aren’t played on paper, and in all honesty, I don’t have a good feeling about the Wings taking this series, but I think that it’s going to be fun and I think that we’re all going to like each other a little less 7-12 days from now.