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|The Detroit Red Wings have missed Todd Bertuzzi while he's been injured this season.|
DETROIT -- The Detroit Red Wings and Edmonton Oilers entered Saturday afternoon's game dead even in points with 11 each. Only Detroit's extra regulation win gave them an edge in the standings heading into the game, with the Red Wings clinging to the No. 8 spot over the Oilers.
But there was more in common with these two teams than their place in the Western Conference standings. Both are fighting through the early-season inconsistencies that become even more heightened when injuries kick in.
The Red Wings were playing without talented young defenseman Brendan Smith (shoulder), along with key forwards Todd Bertuzzi (back) and Darren Helm (back). There's not a player on Detroit's roster whose absence shakes up the team's bottom six and penalty kill more than Helm's.
The Oilers had it just as bad. They lost the game 2-1 in part because they struggled to win faceoffs. It didn't help that two of their centers Eric Belanger (foot) and Shawn Horcoff (broken knuckle) were already in suits as their teammates showered and met with the media after the game. Franchise center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was back in the lineup but dealing with a shoulder injury.
Where these teams differ is in experience. The veteran Red Wings played with the desperation that comes with the realization that there's no time to wait for everyone to get healthy. It may never happen. That desperation wasn't quite matched by the visiting Oilers.
"They really played us hard, the compete level of the Red Wings was exemplary today," Oilers coach Ralph Krueger said. "That's something you need to look at and say, that's the level you want to get to."
With injuries, retirements and departures, the Red Wings are meeting an improving Oilers team on the playoff bubble this season. So it poses an interesting question: If only one of these teams gets in the postseason this year, which is the more likely pick?
A couple of NHL scouts were presented that question and both picked Detroit, in part because that organization gets the benefit of the doubt since the Red Wings have made the playoffs more times consecutively than any team in professional sports.
"I'd go with the experience," said one NHL scout.
The other agreed with his explanation just as simple.
"Datsyuk and Zetterberg," he said.
Both teams have star forwards, but the Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg come with the more developed two-way game and battle-tested experience. There's a difference between learning how to win and knowing how to win.
And also discovering new ways to win, which has been the case in Detroit this season. This version of the Red Wings doesn't have the huge talent advantage it's had in the past, which is the natural result when a future Hall of Famer such as Nicklas Lidstrom retires.
The exodus of talented defensemen Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart has been well-documented, but since losing in the Stanley Cup finals to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, the Red Wings have also lost forwards Tomas Holmstrom, Jiri Hudler and Marian Hossa. Start adding it up and it makes that puck-possession style they dominated with at times a little tougher to maintain.
There will likely be more line mixing and defensive pair jumbling in Detroit this season than there has been in a decade.
"Yeah, but that doesn't mean we can't win," said coach Mike Babcock when we chatted before Saturday's win. "We have to get our head around how we gotta win. They taste and smell the same at the end of the game. It doesn't look the same, it might not feel the same, but at the end when you're walking out, it's the same. So let's embrace it."
The past two games especially, the Red Wings have seemed to embrace it. It's a sign that this year's team is willing to grind out wins in ways Detroit teams in the past didn't have to, making them the most blue-collar Red Wings team in recent memory.
It's a lesson the young Oilers can learn in the early going. They've been a fun group to watch develop because the skill level is so high-end and it's a group that's growing together. When they start winning games like Saturday's, or at least getting a point in overtime, that's a promising sign that they're ready to become a playoff team.
"We're growing, we're maturing," said goalie Devan Dubnyk, who watched teammate Nikolai Khabibulin make an outstanding season debut. "From my end, I've been really happy with the way we've been playing. We're blocking tons of shots. Guys are working really hard. There's some breakdowns we're cleaning up. They're making it easier for the goalie to play back there."
When their entire team is in the lineup, the Oilers can play with anyone in the league. If they're 100 percent healthy, they're a playoff team. Trouble is, nobody makes it through a season like this without injuries.
"The Oilers don't have the depth," said one NHL scout. "You're starting to see that."
As the games tighten with the playoffs closing in, they'll have to improve their 5-on-5 play and win games without relying so heavily on their talented power play.
If they keep getting strong performances from Dubnyk, and now possibly Khabibulin, along with a solid penalty kill, they'll stay in the mix. Edmonton just needs to find ways to grind out points until more bodies return. The Oilers got a glimpse of what that looks like on Saturday from the Red Wings.
"I thought they really came out and played desperate all the way through the game and showed us the level we needed to get to," Krueger said.