DETROIT – Scott Hartnell had been here many times before, sitting in the visitors' dressing room after a loss at Joe Louis Arena, wondering what had gone wrong. What is up with those #%@*$%! end boards? Why are the Detroit Red Wings such a pain to play against? How do they keep doing it year after year?
At least now Hartnell plays for the Philadelphia Flyers. He comes to Detroit once a season, at most. Thank goodness. When the Wings tied an NHL record with 20 straight home victories Sunday night, he felt like he was back with the Nashville Predators, back when he came to the Joe often, back when the Preds were trying to establish themselves in the NHL against superstars like Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan and Chris Chelios, back when games were virtually over before they began.
"You knew it was going to be a hard night and …"
"You probably weren't going to walk out with a win," he said. "Them winning 20 in a row, it gets in teams' heads, I think."
It's mind-boggling. If the Red Wings reach 21 home victories in a row Tuesday night by beating the Dallas Stars, they will break the record held by the 1929-30 Boston Bruins and 1975-76 Flyers – not to mention extend their lead atop the 2011-12 NHL standings.
Say what you want about the era. Three of the Wings' victories have come in a shootout. Another has come in overtime. The 1975-76 Flyers didn't have the benefit of 5-on-5 overtime, let alone 4-on-4 OT or the skills competition.
But this is also the era of the salary cap and parity in a 30-team league. The Wings' streak is already six games longer than any other since the 2004-05 lockout. The Flyers didn't separate themselves the same way in the 1970s. The Bruins had three long home winning streaks of their own during that decade – 15 games, 16 games and 19 games.
And when you have to go all the way back to the 1929-30 Bruins to find another comparison, that's incredible. The 1929-30 season was the first in which the NHL allowed the forward pass.
"Things have changed, so I don't know how you compare that," said Wings coach Mike Babcock. "All I know is that anytime you can win 20 games in a row, you've done something. That's just the facts."
So how have they done it? A combination of old-school home-ice advantage, organizational excellence and … well, some things you can't explain.
There is a reason Wings owner Mike Ilitch wants a new arena someday. The Joe is just a spartan gray box down by the Detroit River. It has only three windows, and they're basically portholes cut into metal doors on the ground floor. It has smelly stairwells. The out-of-town scoreboards have been broken for years and are now covered by a banner ad for a tire store, and the main scoreboard screens are small and standard def.
But to be kind, the joint has character. It is one of the last unique rinks left in this era of cookie-cutter facilities. It is named for a boxer, not a bank. There are suites, but they are all on the top level, keeping high society up high. The seats are vinyl, but the fans don't come for comfort or modern amenities.
"It's not a big show around it," said Wings center Henrik Zetterberg. "You come in and watch hockey."
Hockey is about all there is to watch at the Joe, which is used for few other events. That helps keep the ice hard, smooth and fast – perfect for a highly skilled team like the Wings.
Then there are those #%@*$%! end boards. Although the side boards have been replaced, the end boards are the same as they have been since the Joe opened in 1979. They are the last boards in the NHL still made of wood.
Beneath an eighth of an inch of white plastic, there is three quarters of an inch of plywood, then another half-inch of plywood painted red, supported by a steel frame. Nothing special. Just stuff they find in a store.
"Whoever has the best price," said building manager Al Sobotka, who came over from the old Olympia Stadium 33 years ago. "We rebuild them every year, because the wood rots away."
The wood makes the Joe's end boards the bounciest in the league. Even though that's no secret – and some opponents know it well enough to try to exploit it themselves – the Wings know its quirks better than anybody else.
“Obviously the boards are really bouncy, and they practice here all the time,” said Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen as he walked out of the Joe on Sunday night. “Obviously they know the rink really well. It's not an easy place to play as an opponent.”
Goaltender Jimmy Howard plays more conservatively at home than he does on the road, careful when he comes out to play the puck, sometimes staying back in his net in case the puck flies back over his head – as it did to the Flyers' Sergei Bobrovsky on Sunday night.
Defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom is known to miss the net on purpose. One of the greatest players of all-time, he is able to fire slapshots with his head up. He winds up and looks for a clear lane until the last split-second. If he can't find one, he'll fire the puck wide. The puck ricochets into a scoring area. The Wings are ready, and sometimes they capitalize with a quick goal.
"More than people would think," Lidstrom said.
The building is only as good as the people in it, of course. The Wings have won 20 straight home games and were going for 21, but more important, they have made the playoffs for 20 seasons and were going for 21 in that sense, too.
Like Sobotka with his end boards, general manager Ken Holland has been replacing pieces every year, while keeping the same steel structure. Stars like Yzerman, Shanahan and Chelios are gone, but stars like Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen have risen to the fore. Lidstrom has remained a constant, and so has the Wings' identity as a smart, skilled, puck-possession team.
At the Joe, they can use the last line change to get the best matchups. The opponents' top players often must face Datsyuk, a three-time winner of the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward, and Lidstrom, a seven-time winner as the NHL's best defenseman.
"It's frustrating to play against," Hartnell said. "They frustrate you with the puck-control part of it. It seems like at times you just chase, chase, chase, and eventually you get tired and they put it in the back of the net."
For years, people have been waiting for the Wings to fall off and they haven't. They followed the Stanley Cups of 1997 and '98 with another Cup in 2002 and then another in '08. They almost won yet another in '09, going to Game 7 of the final.
The Wings entered this season with uncertainty, and after their last loss at the Joe – way back on Nov. 3 to the Calgary Flames – they were 5-5-1 overall and 0-5-1 in their last six games. Would Howard rebound from a sophomore slump? Would Lidstrom stay at the same high level at age 41? Would Ian White replace Brian Rafalski as Lidstrom's partner? Did they have enough depth?
The answers to all those questions have been yes, and there have been surprises. Jiri Hudler (17) and Valtteri Filppula (16) have more goals than Datsyuk (15) does. Niklas Kronwall (12) has one more goal than Zetterberg (11) does, and Drew Miller (11) is tied with Zetterberg. Veteran journeyman Joey MacDonald has come up from the minors and won the last three games while Howard has recovered from a broken finger.
"Coming into this year, I wasn't sure if we were going to be in the playoffs or scratching and clawing to get in the playoffs," Babcock said. "I wasn't sure, just looking at our group. This group has surpassed what I thought we were. We're a better team than I thought we were."
Some things still don't add up.
None of the great Red Wings teams ever put together a home winning streak even close to this one, and last season, the Wings actually were better on the road (26-11-4) than they were at home (21-14-6).
Although the Wings have won 20 straight at home, they have gone 13-12-1 on the road over the same time period, including stinkers like a 5-1 loss on Long Island and a 7-2 loss at Montreal just before the all-star break.
But to visitors like Hartnell, it comes back to the same simple things – #%@*$%! end boards, #%@*$%! Red Wings.
"It's the aura of the Joe," Hartnell said. "Every time, you know it's going to be a tough game. Bounces aren't going to go your way. … We'd be playing great. One bounce, and it spirals from there."
Or, for the Wings, it snowballs – sometimes bigger than you can imagine.
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