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Red light special

The NHL's hottest line, plus L.A.'s rare import

Posted: Friday January 19, 2007 2:29PM; Updated: Friday January 19, 2007 4:10PM
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Their slumps behind them, Zetterberg, Holmstrom and Datsyuk have become an unstoppable combination.
Their slumps behind them, Zetterberg, Holmstrom and Datsyuk have become an unstoppable combination.
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It was a dazzling sign of how well things are going in Detroit these days when Henrik Zetterberg of the Red Wings scored one of those goal-of-the-year candidates against Nashville on January 17. Early in the second period,  Detroit's left wing  exchanged passes with his linemates -- center Pavel Datsyuk and right wing Tomas Holmstrom -- skated to the high right slot, pulled a 360-degree spin-o-rama that would have made Denis Savard envious, and slid a harmless looking backhand under the left pad of Predators goalie Tomas Vokoun, who reacted late after being befuddled by Zetterberg's acrobatics.

"When you're running hot like that," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, "those shots always seem to go in."

Not only do Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Holmstrom comprise the NHL's hottest line, they are also perhaps the most radically rejuvenated trio in years. "They are our offensive power now," says Wings goalie Dominik Hasek.

First, check out their numbers:

In his last six games, Zetterberg has three goals and nine assists, at least one point in 14 of his last 15, and has amassed eight goals, 14 assists and a +14 rating during that stretch. That's quite an improvement from the slump in which he failed to record a point in seven straight games from October 13 to 27.

Holmstrom went a puzzling 19 games without a goal from November 2 to December 22. He has now tied his career-high with a recent six-game point-scoring streak during which he had six goals, including a hat trick against Phoenix on January 11, and four assists. Since December 22, he has 10 goals, seven assists and a +9 rating in 14 games.

Datsyuk didn't record his fourth goal of the season until his 26th game, on December  5. In his last nine games, he has a sizzling six and 14 assists, including 11 assists in his last five games, and a +10 rating. He tied his career high for assists in a game (4) against Phoenix on January 11 and Nashville on January 17.

Yet, if you look at the stats, you can't point to increased ice time or additional power-play time as a reason for the trio's emergence. Each player has played roughly 18 to 22 minutes per game since opening night. So why the change?

Many reasons:

New speed: Consider Datsyuk's previous linemates over the years -- people like Brendan Shanahan and Brett Hull. They were great finishers who wanted to get the puck in shooting position (i.e. at the end of a rush). With Zetterberg and Holmstrom, both of whom are strong skaters, Datsyuk has taken time to get used to the idea of giving up the puck earlier in the rush.

Consistent speed: For one, Babcock has kept the three together consistently over the last month after breaking them up several times during the early part of the season. They are among the team's three best skating forwards, and the problem with mixing in a Robert Lang or Dan Cleary or even fellow European Mikael Samuelsson is that when one player skates at a different speed or skates at a different skill level than the other two, it can slow the line.

A wing and two centers: Datsyuk and Zetterberg are both natural centers, which explains why Babcock separated them early this season. But they also know one another's tendencies. Datsyuk jokes that he doesn't need to back-check when he has confidence that Zetterberg will be there to do it for him.

Road bonding: The Red Wings played their longest road trip of the season this month, with games in San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Colorado and Phoenix  between January 4 and 11. Players are more apt to spend extra time at practice when they have nowhere to go other than their hotels. Extended trips also allow for more time to communicate off the ice, and word was that the linemates had several heart-to-heart discussions over meals during the trip.

Datsyuk, a Russian, spent time working on his Swedish with Holmstrom and Zetterberg (and even former linemate Samuelsson) and he has taken to yelling instructions to his linemates in their native tongue. Having a Swedish captain, Nick Lidstrom, on the team doesn't hurt either.

Health: Speaking of hurting, Datsyuk had been nursing a sore groin. He missed three games early this month, but has felt better lately. His ability to pivot more quickly  has sped up the line as it enters the offensive zone.

Extra work: Holmstrom is a known pessimist, one who is especially hard on himself. Over the last few weeks, he's been staying late after practices working on deflecting shots on goal -- sometimes dozens in a stretch. Don't buy the stereotype about all Swedes being soft in the middle. For a player with skill, Holmstrom scores his share of garbage goals and has the marks on his ankles to prove it. Datsyuk scored three goals with his first 37 shots this season, but having Holmstrom on his line ensures that he will shoot through screens more often.

Money talks: Datsyuk is up for free agency this summer. For a while, it looked as though his decision to reject the Wings' offer of $5 million per year was a foolish one, especially for a struggling forward making what looked like a generous $3.9 million. Yet, almost as soon as Wings' GM Ken Holland decided to postpone negotiations until after the season, Datsyuk started to take off.

With its top line on a tear, Detroit has ridden a five-game win streak to reach 65 points, fourth-best in the NHL and only four points off league-leading Nashville's 69. For all the talk about the other strong teams in the Western Conference, such as Anaheim, Nashville and San Jose, those teams haven't won a Stanley Cup -- we're overlooking Dallas for the sake of discussion -- but the Wings have won three in the last nine seasons. Holmstrom played on all three Cup teams. Datsyuk played on the most recent one (2002).

Hull, Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman may be gone, but players such as Hasek, Lidstrom, Kris Draper and Chris Chelios have hoisted Cups in Detroit, so the Wings still have the ammunition to be champs, even if their top gunners have new faces. And right now, their three top gunners are firing on all cylinders.

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