DETROIT – There was a special excitement in the Red Wings’ locker room following Tuesday’s practice at Joe Louis Arena.
On the eve of the season-opener, players were amped for what promises to be an intoxicating year highlighted by a move to the Eastern Conference, and participation in the 2014 Winter Classic and the Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The Wings open the season Wednesday against Buffalo. The Wings and Sabres are among eight-teams in the new Atlantic Division, joined by Boston, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto.
“It's always a fun time of year,” Wings goalie Jimmy Howard said. “Pretty much all 30 teams think they have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup. There is that excitement, especially in this dressing room, seems to have a little bit of a hop in everyone's step, everyone seems energized. Looking forward to getting started and thankful we get to do it at home.”
Moving to the East will rekindle rivalries with old foes like the Maple Leafs and Canadiens while allowing travel will be much more conducive for extra player rest, opposed to playing in the Western Conference where the Wings were often required to cross three time zones.
“Those things are all exciting. I think change is exciting and you want to embrace it,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “This is a new opportunity for our team. Instead of one Original Six team we get to play against four others so that’s a positive, positive thing for us and the players really like that. The travel is going to be way better. Fans are going to get to see us easier and as coaches we’re going to get to pre-scout at seven at night instead of 10 at night which is kind of nice. When you put it all together it’s a positive thing.”
Another positive for the Wings is the addition of Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss. With them, the Wings believe they have must-needed scoring throughout the lineup that will make life miserable for Atlantic Division teams.
“I think everyone's excited for the season. First and foremost we get to play hockey, compete,” forward Daniel Cleary said. “Our team feels on the ice, with the additions of Alfie and Weiss, the growth of the young, getting (Darren) Helm healthy, all positive things. The Winter Classic, the Olympics, it's an exciting year for everybody.
“The biggest thing for our team, we look good on paper, we have good depth, good team, we have to execute on the ice. I'm looking forward to playing these new teams more often. It'll be great for everybody involved, the fans, the media, just a different look.”
It’s definitely going to be a unique season for the players, especially next month when HBO returns to chronicle the Wings with unprecedented access to the team for 8 ½ weeks leading up to the Winter Classic game against the Leafs at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
But all in all, the players are looking forward to the chance.
“It’s a lot of fun stuff, stuff you look forward to,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “I actually think it’ll make the season a little easier. You won’t have some months where you’re just going through the motions. You have the Winter Classic, ‘24/7’ will be around here, the Olympics and right after that you have the playoffs coming. Having the Olympics and Winter Classic I don’t see as a negative thing, it’s all positive. It’ll be easy to go through the whole year.
“It’s exciting. Just going to the East, going to different cities and seeing different teams is going to be real exciting. It’s not the same old thing. It feels new. You have extra energy, you want to go and play these new teams. It’s going to be easier to prepare for games.”
MILLER TIME: Moving to the Eastern Conference is exciting for the Wings and their fans. But for Drew Miller, moving conferences means more family time with his older brother.
“Playing in the East and playing my brother a lot more is going to be great,” said Drew Miller, whose brother is Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. “I don’t see him much anymore because he lives in California during the summers, so the more I can see him during the season the better. It will not only be exciting for me and for him, but for our family and our friends who are around here.”
The Miller brothers have faced off a few times during their NHL careers, though the Wings’ forward is still seeking his first goal against the Sabres’ veteran.
“I got an assist on Helmer’s goal two years ago, Drew Miller said. “The goal this time is to get a couple more shots and get a goal passed him, and as always get a win for the team. You have to make it about your team and not about your brother.”
Now in the same division, the Red Wings and Sabres will play four times this season. But Wednesday’s opener will be extra special.
“There’s nothing like opening night at home versus your brother,” Drew said. “We have family and friends who want to coordinate tickets and a pass list and all of that kind of stuff. It will definitely be different having it on the first night, but I don’t think it changes anything. It’s always a little bit hectic when I play against him.”
Justin Abdelkader had been working at the net-front on the top power-play unit with Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, and Alfredsson and Niklas Kronwall on the point. But Tuesday Johan Franzen joined the first unit as the net-front presence. Todd Bertuzzi replaced Franzen on the second unit during Tuesday’s practice.
Tomas Tatar, Jordin Tootoo (shoulder) and Helm all skated, but will not play against the Sabres. Tatar is expected to be a healthy scratch as it seems the coaches will go with veterans Bertuzzi and Samuelsson over the young forward.
Here are the line combinations and defensive pairings that the Wings used at practice:
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