Though their lack of postseason participation certainly sends a red flag to some, their inexperience isn’t much of a concern for the Red Wings on the eve of Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals series against the Anaheim Ducks.
“We’ve really improved drastically in that area, probably the most improved part of our team,” coach Mike Babcock said. “With Howie playing the way he and the D able to get the puck going, we’re spending a lot less time in our zone. That allows you to be much better up front.”
The plan is to go with the same six defensemen – Smith, Kindl, DeKeyser, Kyle Quincey, Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson – for Tuesday’s opener at Honda Center that have been in the lineup for most of the past month, Babcock said.
Ever since DeKeyser made his NHL debut in Colorado on April 5, the Red Wings blue line has undergone an incredible transformation. Considered the team’s Achilles heels before the season began in mid-January, the defense has steadily grown up. Since the 3-2 overtime win in Denver, the sextet has collectively produced a goal and 13 assists with a plus-18 rating.
Still badgered by some in the media for the lack of playoff experience with some players, Babcock turned the tables, saying, “What are you going to do about it?”
The Red Wings are fifth in the league in fewest goals allowed. They surrendered seven goals in regulation in the last seven games, which is a far cry from the 20 allowed in the first seven games of the season when everyone wrote off the Red Wings’ postseason hopes.
“You have to learn on the go and I think we’ve been doing that this year,” Smith said. “I think we heard a lot about our defense, about people not having faith in us, but I think we’ve done pretty well. I think our goals-against average is top 10 in the league so it’s something we’re going to keep doing. We’re going to keep playing hard like that, keep blocking shots and keep playing the same way we have of late and I think it’ll pay off for us.”
What is working in the Red Wings’ favor is they’re playing their best hockey of the season at the right time of the year. They head into the playoffs riding a four-game winning streak, which is a season-long, they’re getting goal-scoring production from all four lines, and the defense, led by goalie Jimmy Howard, has three shutouts in seven games.
“It’s good to see that we’re playing our best hockey when we have to and hopefully it keeps going,” Quincey said. “It’s good to see the boys scoring and the defense coming together and Jimmy’s playing great and I think everything is firing at the same time.”
The same can’t be said for the Ducks, who soared to a 22-3-4 record to open the regular-season and set a club record by winning 13 consecutive home games. But since back-to-back home losses to the Red Wings in late-March, the Ducks have plummeted, finishing the season at 8-9-2.
Still, the Red Wings know that the road ahead will be difficult against second-seed Anaheim, despite the Ducks late-season swoon.
“They’re big, they’re physical, they play hard and they’re really deep at the forward position,” Howard said. “We’re going to have our work cut-out for us, but at the same time it’s going to be a lot of fun to go out there in sort of a different role than just getting to the playoffs.”
Roles will also be different for the young defensemen as they try to grasp new experiences.
“I’ve watched a lot of playoff hockey and you see the different level of play from the regular-season to today. It’s a whole new season,” Smith said. “Everybody blocks shots. It’s not uncommon to see players put faces in front of pucks at this time of year. The will to win and competiveness jumps up so much more at this time.
“I’m excited to jump right into it. I can’t wait to jump into that situation.”
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose
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