Detroit — The Red Wings have missed the playoffs for the last six seasons, and to be sure, there are a variety of reasons why that is.
Not enough overall talent is a prime reason. There were seasons where faulty goaltending was an issue, the offense wasn’t dangerous enough, or the overall defense was too leaky.
A common thread, though, through the six seasons was faulty special teams.
The power play was an annual source of frustration, unable to score goals or generate momentum from which the Wings could benefit.
And the penalty kill, though at least close to average on occasion through that six-year span, bottomed out last season with an NHL-worst 73.8 percentage.
The Wings had a good start to last season in the standings, were in the playoff chase until close to midseason, but eventually the subpar results on the special teams contributed to the downfall (26th on power play, 32nd on penalty kill).
This season’s surge in the standings has been, in part, accomplished because of the special teams.
The Wings came into Friday’s game ranked 15th on the power play (21.7%) and a lofty 11th on the penalty kill (80.7%).
“We had a good start last year, and I remember we just couldn’t get anything going on our special teams,” captain Dylan Larkin said after the Wings shut out Nashville on Wednesday, 3-0. The Wings scoring a power-play goal, and killing a crucial 97-second two-man Nashville advantage during the game. “Our special teams let us down a lot. Now our special teams is winning us games.
“It’s different players that are in our lineup, (but) I just think we’re rolling right now. We’re taking care of the puck on the power play, and on the penalty kill, it’s not perfect but things are going well, we’re blocking shots or getting sticks in lanes or getting big saves.”
That penalty kill has been helped considerably by some outstanding goaltending from Ville Husso, who was key in the victory over Nashville.
But the special teams have been something coach Derek Lalonde has pointed to for needed improvement, and thus far, the Wings are noticeably progressing.
“You need a goaltender and your special teams to bail you out,” Lalonde said. “We’ve worked really hard on our special teams, we’ve spent a lot of time on it.”
On the power play, adding goal scorers such as Dominik Kubalik and David Perron has made the unit increasingly dangerous.
Four of Kubalik’s nine goals and 10 of his 21 points, have come on the power play. Perron has two goals and six points (of his six and 16, respectively, total) on the power play.
Perron, in particular, has been crucial for the power play success, providing a calming effect when he has the puck.
“He’s world-class on the half-wall, but what goes unnoticed, and helped our power play immensely, is his ability to retrieve and keep plays alive,” Lalonde said. “I can’t tell you how many times the power play looks in trouble, and he’ll either make a poised play or a little pass maybe through our bumper or even through traffic and it (the play) gets re-started.”
Within the last two weeks, forward Pius Suter has found himself on top line with Larkin and Lucas Raymond, and now on a quasi-fourth line with Joe Veleno and Jonatan Berggren.
But don’t look at it as a demotion. It’s more about Lalonde, and the coaching staff’s, admiration of Suter’s versatility and adaptability to play in a variety of roles.
And, Suter’s effectiveness in those roles.
“We can play him anywhere,” Lalonde said. “He complements anyone, and his hockey sense helps him play fast.”
Suter has four goals and four assists heading into Friday’s game, and arguably is more comfortable in his current role than he was last season as the second-line center.
Husso was expected to get his fifth consecutive start in net against Arizona.
… Goaltender Magnus Hellberg, claimed off waivers Wednesday, took part in Friday’s morning skate.
… When asked about his hot start this season, defenseman Filip Hronek singled out being paired with Olli Maatta from the start of training camp. Maatta, a free agent signing last summer, has formed a dependable pairing with Hronek.
“That helps for sure, we built some chemistry and we’re still working on it,” Hronek said.