Saturday, December 26, 2009

Four Lines Deep - 12/26/09

Blue Jackets at Red Wings; Joe Louis Arena
7 p.m. (EST); Fox Sports Ohio (HD)

The Wings are getting healthy again, and key forward Filppula returns for tonight's game.

It's only been a few days since the Jackets' most recent loss to Dallas. However, two days of relative peace and quiet at this time of year can really rejuvenate people...even people that have only two wins in their last 18 games. As was noted in the Dispatch, Commodore had a few of the young, single players over to his place for a nice dinner of pheasant. It tastes like chicken, but doesn't make you sleepy for the rest of a road trip.

The last few days certainly helped the Red Wings get healthy. Tonight's game in the Joe marks the return of several key players, including Rafalski from illness and Filppula out since October with injury. Zetterberg and Cleary both out injuries, also started skating with the team again this morning. Look out NHL.

The Wings have been drawing attention around the league recently for the most surprising of reasons...a lack of scoring. Most recently, they were shut out by the Blackhawks, 3-0. I think it's impressive how well the Wings have maintained their style of hockey with so many injuries to crucial players. Getting Rafalski and Filppula back tonight will certainly strengthen their powerplay unit, if nothing else. Currently, the Wings rank 19th in the league in powerplay efficiency. But frankly, does it matter? The Jackets can't afford to take an AHL team lightly right now, let alone the very same depleted Red Wings team that trounced them 9-1 in Columbus in the teams' only previous meeting this season.

Given the history between the two teams -- the recent highlight being the slaughter in Columbus -- one would think that the Jackets will come out fired up in this game. As hard as it has been to predict which Jackets team will show up from night to night, one would have to believe that Rick Nash and company will bring some energy tonight. The larger question will be if they can sustain the energy through some adversity and for the entire game.

You can copy and paste the keys to victory against the Wings from one game to the next. Of course that's much easier than actually doing those things, but here we go:

Clean the crease. With the loss of so much skill up front due to injuries, there's little surprise that Tomas Holmstrom and his stupid goatee leads the Wings in goals this season. He's made a career in parking himself in front of the net and earning ugly, gritty goals. Rusty Klesla made that position very uncomfortable for him last year, but he's obviously out from injury. Somebody will have to step up and fill that role, or Holmstrom will give the Jackets plenty of problems.

Take the puck to the net. It requires sacrifice and determination - neither of which have been in consistent supply recently - but the Jackets have the sheer size and speed to drive to the net. Getting out of the recent scoring drought will come from "greasy" goals that will never make it to a highlight reel. Opposing teams have been doing a good job of forcing the Jackets to the outside recently, and that has really impacted the number of quality scoring chances the Jackets are getting. With Kronwall out, the Jackets won't have a ton of big hitters (notable exception: Stuart) to contend with, so they should be able to get the puck deep and cycle for some close shots and rebounds. Hopefully, this strategy will also get the Jackets 4-5 powerplays where they have continued to generate the bulk of their goal scoring.

Hit hard and smart.  No matter how many players the Wings are missing, they will absolutely embarrass you if you let them control the puck. That means the Jackets have to punish anyone in a red sweater that finds their way into the neutral or defensive zones. However, the Jackets can't just run around and bang the boards -- the hitting has to be done with the right angles and the right timing. Again, the Jackets have the size to wear down teams that count on puck possession and sharp passing, but they have to pick their spots. When playing the Wings, out-hitting them is just as important as any other statistical category. Regardless of how effective the Jackets are with checking this evening, it is absolutely critical that they become harder to play against, or this losing streak is only a preview of a long and frustrating second half of the season.

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