DETROIT, Michigan -- For many years the Red Wings have had the tradition of playing a home game on New Year's Eve. This year, that tradition also fulfilled a goal head coach Dave Lewis had set for his team last month: to be alone atop the NHL standings by the end of 2002. The team set to work, outplaying the rest of the NHL to gain a 10-1-4 record through the month of December, capping off the month with a 5-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues.
The Blues did manage to score first, 4:20 into the game. Sean Avery had been sent to the penalty box for slashing, leaving Detroit shorthanded. Pavol Demitra faked a shot from the right point and passed across to Doug Weight. Weight made a pass across the goal crease, and Keith Tkachuk tipped it past Curtis Joseph.
Avery made up for his penalty later on, with 6:48 remaining in the first period. Mathieu Dandenault, playing in his first game back after missing time with an orbital fracture, made a good play to hold the puck in at the St. Louis blue line, then shot the puck towards the net. Avery got his stick on the flying puck to angle it underneath goaltender Brent Johnson.
The Wings-Blues rivalry generally leads to some intense play and not a few penalties, so it should come as no surprise that the first period ended in fights. Tyson Nash was so irritated by Avery that he lost his temper and started the fight, while Reed Low threw a punch at Tomas Holmstrom, who isn't really one to start a fight, but doesn't seem to mind finishing one. The combatants were all given roughing minors, and Nash and Holmstrom each picked up an extra ten-minute misconduct.
The Red Wings increased their lead in the second period with two more goals from not-so-likely sources. The first came on the power play, with Low back in the box for high-sticking. Jason Woolley shot the puck on net from the left point, and Darren McCarty tipped it past Johnson to take the lead.
Goal number three came just after a penalty on Corey Stillman had ended, but before Stillman could really get back to the play. Dmitri Bykov shot the puck from the blue line, and Kirk Maltby redirected it past Johnson, who was already sliding the other way.
Brendan Shanahan put the game away with two goals in the third period. The first came 1:59 into the period. He took the pass from Sergei Fedorov and carried into the Blues' zone, shooting on Johnson just as he crossed the blue line. Johnson had the puck in his glove, but dropped it. It bounced off of his foot and into the net, signalling the end of the game for the young goaltender. Backup Fred Brathwaite came in to take his place.
The change in goalies didn't make any difference to Shanahan. His second goal came less than five minutes after his first, during a hooking penalty to Christian Laflamme. Fedorov passed along the blue line to Nicklas Lidstrom at the right point. Brathwaite was out of position, angled to stop any possible shots from Lidstrom. Meanwhile, Shanahan was open on the left side, and Lidstrom saw it. The pass came across, and Shanahan one-timed it into the wide-open net.
Joseph made 29 nice saves on 30 shots, for a 96.67% save percentage. Johnson stopped 12 of the 15 he faced, and Brathwaite stopped 5 of 6.
The Red Wings will play their first game of 2003 on Friday against the Phoenix Coyotes.
Notes: Pavel Datsyuk and Jesse Wallin are both expected to be cleared to return to the lineup sometime in the next week.... Maltby's goal was his 10th of the season, passing his total for last season and keeping him right on pace for what could be a 20-goal season.... The Red Wings are scoring almost as many goals as they did last season, but the scoring is much more spread out across the team. Seventeen different players contributed at least one goal during the month of December.