When coach Mike Babcock met with general manager Ken Holland before the season, neither was absolutely convinced the Red Wings were even a playoff team. "We thought we might have to scratch and claw to make it," Babcock says. "We thought it could be a decent team, but it's turned out to be my best team here since 2009 [when Detroit reached the Stanley Cup finals]."
Ultimately the Red Wings will be judged by how they finish, but any lingering playoff queasiness has been suppressed with a resounding home winning streak of 23 games (including a 3--2 win over the Sharks on Sunday) that has Detroit (41-17-2) first in the NHL, cruising toward spring. It has been akin to setting a wind-aided world record—four victories have come via overtime or shootouts, while the 1975--76 Flyers won 20 straight at home without any of the modern hockey conveniences—but the longest home streak in league history has cushioned the Red Wings in the fierce Central Division, from which three rivals (St. Louis, Nashville and Chicago) also should qualify for the postseason.
The streak hardly requires the suspension of disbelief considering Detroit's talent and coaching. "Like everything else with that franchise—four Cups [since 1997], the [11 straight] 100-point seasons—they probably did it because they felt like it," an admiring Western Conference scout says. But there is something counterintuitive about any team running off 23 straight at home, especially one that is hardly fanatic in its use of the last line-change perk that comes with home ice and which coaches use to secure favorable matchups. "We just don't seem to give up much here," says Babcock, whose team has scored more than twice the number of home goals than it has allowed, 105 to an NHL-low 49. (The Wings haven't allowed more than two goals in 21 of the 23 wins.)
In part the stinginess can be attributed to face-off prowess, especially in the defensive zone. Led by the estimable Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit, whose overall face-off percentage of 51.4 ranks seventh in the league, has won 232 of 394 (58.9%) defensive-zone draws during the streak. An opponent outdrew Detroit in that zone in only three of those 23 matches.
"One of the major areas of focus coming into this season was being better at home," Holland says. "Last year we were great on the road but had a mediocre home record [21-14-6]. And our defense was pretty porous, allowing the second most goals. We've cleaned that up." Next assignment: taking the Joe Louis Arena show on the road. Detroit, winners of just 15 of 31 away games, is --11 in goal differential as the visitor.