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What are the Red Wings? Answer unclear, but worth watching to find out

Dennis Cholowski of the Detroit Red Wings skates against the Vancouver Canucks at Little Caesars Arena on November 06, 2018 in Detroit. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Dennis Cholowski of the Detroit Red Wings skates against the Vancouver Canucks at Little Caesars Arena on November 06, 2018 in Detroit. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

DETROIT – It's not a question that can be adequately answered right now, but here's what we do know for sure about the Detroit Red Wings: They are one of the hottest teams in the NHL. 

Yes, the Red Wings, the same team that went winless through their first seven games of the season, are now 7-3 in their past 10 games to improve their record to 8-8-2 (18 points). This is the same team that no one in their right mind gave a real shot at making the playoffs this season, and it's the same team that was supposed to have the worst team defense in the league -- that's not the case at all anymore. Detroit's goal differential over these past 10 games was +10, improving their overall goal differential to -8, far from worst in the league which is -21 and belongs to the disastrous Los Angeles Kings.

Goal differential isn't a perfect representation of a team's defense, especially at this point in the season, but jumping up 10 points in 10 games is nothing to ignore. 

 Time to believe in this team? 

So what now? Are we supposed to believe in this Red Wings team? Is it time to start rooting for a trip to the playoffs? I thought we were all jumping on the #LoseForHughes train, hoping to get high 2019 draft picks and dreaming of an even younger lineup with more potential for a strong Red Wings future. Winning didn't appear to be a short-term option. 

But now -- sigh -- we are here watching this Red Wings squad prove nearly everyone wrong while baiting us to believe in them. And, yeah, I really want to believe in them.

Last week I wrote this article -- Here's how the Red Wings have avoided complete disaster and started winning -- and in it I pointed to the strong, relentless play from Dylan Larkin and the inspiring goaltending from Jimmy Howard. Both statements remain true. Larkin continues to be the beating heart of this lineup, willing them with his exhaustive puck pursuit.

I also stressed the importance of Howard staying healthy if the Red Wings wanted to keep stringing together wins, and if he wants his best shot at a new sweet deal. Because, at the time, Jonathan Bernier was not looking like an option. The team certainly wasn't playing well in front of him. But then ...

 Bernier made 49 saves the other night 

No big deal, just 49 saves -- FORTY NINE -- to beat the Carolina Hurricanes. And the Red Wings won with Bernier between the pipes. It was a come-from-behind win with two goals in the 3rd period to force overtime and the shootout, where Bernier saved everything while Frans Nielsen lived up to his reputation and the most prolific shootout goal-scorer in NHL history. That's one of the best pieces of hockey trivia ever. Nielsen still hasn't scored a goal this season outside of that shootout tally. He does have 10 assists.

Suddenly, the Red Wings goaltending looks real, real, real solid. I mean, let's put it this way: The Calgary Flames are trying to figure out if Mike Smith is a better option than David Rittich, or even a bag of pucks -- there are some pretty dark goaltending spaces teams can find themselves in. This Howard-Bernier thing looks quite attractive.

 Anthony Mantha is scoring 

The mumurs from some Red Wings fans were piling up -- "Mantha doesn't look like he's hustling, he never gets a good look at the net, he's not willing to put in work to win puck battles. Isn't he on this team to score goals?"

Was Mantha listening? Because he now has 4 goals in the past 8 games. He's looked like a new player in the month of November, and that's very important because Detroit will not be able to stay in the playoff conversation without goals from Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou, who has 3 goals and 6 points the past three games. Both of these young forwards need to be scoring 20 goals a season or more.

  The defense is actually good 

You know how I feel about Dennis Cholowski -- read up here if you don't -- and now I'm starting to believe he is the actual x-factor that's making this defense better than it was last year and way better than it was at the beginning of this season. Mike Green's late addition to the lineup this year certainly has helped, but for the most part you know what you're getting from Green. He's a skilled, strong veteran guy who makes few mistakes. He's supposed to be the top defenseman on Detroit, and he is.

But no one could have guessed Cholowski would give Detroit so much more depth on the blue line just 16 games into his NHL career. If you watch closely, you'll see him make some rookie mistakes in his own zone. However, overall he's solid and playing like he's been a pro for years, not weeks. On the offensive side, he now has 3 goals and 6 assists, and he's getting great looks on the power play.

And then there is Trevor Daley, who is now has a +5 rating. Daley, 35, has adjusted his game to a much more stay-at-home style while maintaining his above average puck movement skills. If he can keep up this strong play for the bulk of the season, the Red Wings have themselves a really serviceable top-4 defenseman, which was the point of signing him in the first place. 

Niklas Kronwall, by the way, is +5 over the past 10 games. He and Daley could probably be described as the same player right now -- a defenseman near the end of his career who is still playing smart hockey at a high level. Again, staying healthy is key.

 There is nothing for this team to lose 

Maybe this is what really matters and what can help explain what's happening: With such low expectations for the Red Wings -- that sunk even lower after those first seven games -- we are now watching a team play without anything to lose. Seriously, whether the players and coach would ever admit it, this is a squad that has been allowed the fortune of entering games without fear. They've hit rock bottom once already this season, and have proven they can pull themselves back up.

If everything goes totally sideways again, does it really matter? The Red Wings are positioned to be better next season, no matter what. Forget tanking for draft picks. Enjoy the ride and try to, you know, enjoy watching this team.

 What's up next

  • 7:30 p.m. Thursday -- Red Wings @ Senators
  • 1 p.m. Saturday -- Red Wings @ Devils

The Ottawa Senators play their best hockey at home right now (5-3-2) and they're a point behind the Red Wings in the standings. This should be a good game to watch. It's the teams' first meeting this season.

The New Jersey Devils are one of the biggest disappointments in the league right now and sitting dead last in the Eastern Conference. Detroit beat them on Nov. 1, 4-3. Taylor Hall still has 19 points in 16 games. If the Devils want to climb out of the basement it will have to be on Hall's shoulders once again.


This hockey newsletter is authored by Dave Bartkowiak Jr. He can be contacted at dbartkowiak@wdiv.com or on Twitter @DaveBartko

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