The Red Wings and Blackhawks are the focus of the hockey world this week leading up to their game on New Year's Day. The Winter Classic is getting all the attention, and rightfully so, but the original six rivals will square off in Detroit tonight in a game of similar importance to the Central Division race. With their ninth straight win Sunday night, the Hawks are within four games of the Wings with a chance to close the gap this week.
About a month ago, Chicago was coming off three straight losses, facing the Ducks and Wings in the next two games. The Hawks split those games, with the loss coming to Detroit in a shootout, and haven't lost since. The nine game streak is the longest in franchise history.
So what's the word on the back-to-back games with Detroit? I'm glad I asked, here's a little insight for both teams...
Why Detroit will come out on top:
They're the Red Wings and when they get up for games this year, they're virtually unstoppable (see a 6-0 win against San Jose recently). Plus, they own the big stage. With tonight's game in Detroit and the Classic at Wrigley with the spotlight on, Detroit has to like their chances.
Toews, Kane, and Sharp are great, but they aren't Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Hossa yet. The Wings have also been able to score with ease on the Hawks this year and have two wins in two tries to show for it. When you look at Detroit and see the talent on the roster, it's not hard to get ready to play your best game, but the Wings have struggled to bring it every night this year. Kirk Maltby says it's like they're spotting teams two or three goals every night. With the Blackhawks right on their heels, the Wings shouldn't have trouble finding motivation Tuesday and they won't be able to escape it on Thursday. If motivation is all that's standing in the way Detroit has the upper hand.
Why Chicago will come out on top:
The problem for Detroit is that the Wings will need much more than a little spirit to take care of the Blackhawks. Chicago comes in on the hottest of streaks, while Detroit has lost two straight.
Dustin Byfuglien has come back just at the right time, scoring two goals Sunday night, while Nick Lidstrom will likely miss tonight's game to try and play Thursday with a bum ankle. The seemingly annual Norris Trophy winner plays a ton of minutes for Detroit and his absence gives the Hawks a huge advantage.
Sure, the Wings won both of the previous meetings this year, but the Hawks enjoyed a two goal lead in the third periods of both games and both went to a shootout. Also, while the Hawks may not have the bonafide talent the Wings do, they have some players that any team would kill to have and they're deep.
Detroit's penalty kill is struggling lately, which also bodes well for Chicago. If Lidstrom is out tonight, I like Chicago's chances based on their power play. Any struggles the Wings have had this season stem from the defense. They've turned the puck over too much and have been bad on the penalty kill. You can't do that against the Hawks with their firepower. With Lidstrom out, the Wings will take more penalties and will kill off less. The power play, which was a major point of concern for the Hawks has become an overwhelming strength. The Hawks have the 4th best power play in the league and are 5th best at killing them off, while the Wings have the 24th best penalty kill.
What does it all mean?
First of all, the importance of these two games is gigantic, or whatever hyperbole you would like to use to describe important stuff. John McDonough has called the Winter Classic a chance for an epiphany and described it as the biggest stage the franchise had ever been on. No pressure for the young Blackhawks.
Seriously though, the youth on the Blackhawks has to be a concern. A lot will come down to the health of Lidstrom; he wins awards every year for a reason and he is great. If he's out, the Hawks have a decent shot at a couple of wins. I think Lidstrom sits tonight and plays Thursday.
As a hockey fan, this is an unbelievably exciting pair of games. The Red Wings - Blackhawks rivalry can be one of the best in sports when it's at its best. With both teams playing like this, the rivalry is well on its way back. The atmosphere at Wrigley should be well past crazy and the level of play will not disappoint.
It's tough to come up with a prediction for the two games, but I think the Hawks will gain a point on the Wings in the standings. Hawks pick up three points, while the Wings get two. (It's two points for a win and one for a loss in OT or Shootout so you know S.N.)