Pittsburgh — Goaltender Ville Husso was scheduled to make his 24th start of the season Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
That’s 24 games in 33 games total for the Wings, a heavy workload for a still relatively inexperienced and unproven goaltender finding his way in the NHL.
But Husso insists he’s doing fine physically. He’s enjoying it.
“Last year (in St. Louis) I got a lot of games in a row, and this year, it’s been nice to get those right away,” Husso said. “The team is playing well and, of course, you want to win more, but it’s easy to roll, too, when you get two or three games in a row instead of going every two weeks or something like that. It’s been nice.”
Husso played a career-high 40 games with the Blues last season, and his statistics did trend lower with the heavier workload. But Husso feels he is better suited to handle the number of games this time, if needed.
“I need to be on top of everything, things like injuries, and that’s the big thing and making sure my body is ready,” Husso said. “It’s just managing it, and here we do a real good job with stuff like that. The food you eat, and basic stuff. Making sure the body is taken care of and I’m doing what I need to do.
“I’m old enough now that I’ve learned a lot.”
The Wings have leaned on Husso more than expected because of his impressive play, but also the inconsistency of goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic. The Wings are carrying a third goalie for now, Magnus Hellberg, who also earned a start earlier this month.
Either Nedeljkovic or Hellberg will claim the secondary spot soon, as the Wings will likely not be able to carry three goalies on the roster soon with other skaters coming off the injured list.
The hope is for either Nedeljkovic or Hellberg to play well enough to lessen Husso’s load.
Husso is only 27, but he understands rest is important. Husso feels he’s better equipped with knowledge now of how to handle a larger amount of games after getting a taste of it last season.
“When you’re younger, you can do whatever you want pretty much and still be fine, but now you can’t really do it; the body doesn’t allow you to do it,” Husso said. “Just little things, but stuff like that, knowing that, it’s helped me the last three years.”
Coach Derek Lalonde has been impressed with Husso’s consistency throughout all the games.
“He’s (Husso) been, and credit to Alex Westlund (goaltending coach) working with him,” Lalonde said. “He’s a huge competitor. There were a couple of games where bad goals left out there have really frustrated him and he’s bounced back. It speaks volumes to the competitor he is.”
Defenseman Olli Maatta spent his first six NHL seasons and won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins during that time.
The core of those Stanley Cup teams consisted of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang — as it does these days.
Maatta isn’t surprised by the trio’s success and longevity.
“Coming in as a young kid, it was a pretty surreal feeling, and tip-toeing a little bit until I got to know to realize how good a people they are,” Maatta said. “It’s easy to come into that locker room because they make it really easy for the new guys to come in, and that’s one part of the success they’ve had. They make it easy for everyone. My first year in the league, those guys made it feel comfortable and feel like yourself.”
What stood out for Maatta was the example the three players put forth.
“You see the work ethic every day; it’s there all the time,” Maatta said. “It was eye-popping to see every day. They’ve been the best for a long time, but they’re always working on something. They take it so seriously at practice, and they bring everyone else up to their level.”
Lalonde was part of a championship nucleus in Tampa Bay, and he sees something similar with the Penguins, who’ve been legitimate Stanley Cup contenders for more than a decade.
“It probably won’t be appreciated until down the road,” Lalonde said. “It’s the same thing in Pittsburgh — you may not appreciate how good that core and how special it is until down the road. But, the fact they’re still keeping their team at the top of the league and competitive with Stanley Cup aspirations as long as they have, and that window is still open, it’s pretty impressive and it really says something about that core.”
Jakub Vrana officially joined minor-league affiliate Grand Rapids and will play three games in four nights with the Griffins. Vrana could return to the Wings in time for the January 4 game against New Jersey.
“We just want him to replicate some game play,” Lalonde said. “He’s been out so long — his last game was Oct. 15 — it’s good for him to replicate some game play. I love the fact he agreed to the stint of three games in four nights and hopefully, it all goes well and we’ll make our next decision from there.”
Potentially, the Wings could have Vrana (NHL/NHLPA player-assistance program) and Robby Fabbri (knee surgery) return together for that New Jersey game.
“It’s our hope,” Lalonde said. “We’ll see. We’d like to get there. We talked about making some tough roster decisions, but we’ve talked about this all year and we’ve been unable to get there with healthy bodies. Hopefully, we’ll have that good luxury on Wednesday of next week.”
The most difficult thing for any hockey team returning from the four-day holiday break?
“Getting your compete (level) up,” Lalonde said. “It’s difficult to replicate (in practice). It’s one of the first things that happens with the time off, you lose how hard you compete.”
Red Wings at Sabres
▶ Faceoff: 7 p.m. Thursday, KeyBank Center, Buffalo.
▶ TV/radio: BSD/97.1
▶ Outlook: The Sabres (16-14-2) haven’t skated since December 22, when they practiced before the holiday break. Tuesday’s game in Columbus was canceled because the Buffalo airport has been closed after a crippling snowstorm hit the region Center Tage Thompson is having a monstrous season (26 goals, 50 points).