DETROIT – Nine games. That’s it.
Nine games remain between now and the end of the regular-season for the Red Wings. Nine games to get into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Nine games to extend their league record to 22 straight postseason appearances.
For the next three weeks, every game – as they all have been for several weeks now – will be crucially important to the Wings’ survival in the Western Conference standings.
But this week will be a tricky one for the Wings, who have three straight days off for just the second time this season. While the Wings take a break, other Western teams, particularly Phoenix and Edmonton, enter this week with a game in hand and have the chance to gain ground on Detroit.
“We knew it was going to be like this,” said captain Henrik Zetterberg, of the current playoff race. “It’s going to be tight all the way in. It makes the games so much more fun to play and I’m looking forward to the next one.”
The “next one” isn’t until Thursday when the Wing host the San Jose Sharks, who are 7-0-1 in the last eight games. Detroit is 1-3-1 in its last five games, including a 1-0 loss to St. Louis on Sunday.
“We all know what's at stake here and we have to do a better job,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “The power play has to be better and be a factor each night and (Sunday) it wasn't. … Anytime you're at home you want to try to take advantage of them. … Very disappointing.”
Besides the Sharks, the Red Wings will close the week with road games in Chicago on Friday and in Nashville on Sunday. Against this week’s opponents, the Red Wings have posted a 2-2-3 record.
With that, here’s a look ahead to this week in Hockeytown:
THURSDAY – vs. SAN JOSE (20-11-7): The return of former teammate Brad Stuart to Joe Louis Arena will be overshadowed by the importance of this game to the Red Wings. This will be the third and final game of the year against the Sharks. The teams split the two previous games, but the Sharks are one of two teams that Detroit hasn’t scored a power-play goal against this season, going 0-for-3 with a man-advantage. It’s no surprise; the Sharks enter this week as owners of the best penalty kill in the conference, allowing 16 power-play goals in 120 attempts – that’s a kill rate of 86.7 percent. … Agitating forward Raffi Torres, who was acquired from Phoenix at last week’s trade deadline, had a busy first game with the Sharks. The 11-year veteran picked up two assists and a game-high seven hits in Sunday’s 5-4 shootout loss to Dallas.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Even when the Sharks were playing uninspired earlier in the season, goalie Antti Niemi always gave them a chance to win every night. San Jose has gone eight straight games without losing in regulation, mainly because of the work that Niemi has done by carrying this team for the last three weeks. He is the only goalie in the NHL to rank sixth or better in starts (34), wins (19), goals-against average (2.14), save percentage (.924), saves (892) and shutouts (5). … Niemi saves his best for the Red Wings, which is indicated through the 1.81 GAA he has against them in 13 career games. He is 9-2-2 with two shutouts all-time against Detroit.
FRIDAY – at CHICAGO (28-5-4): The Madhouse on Madison will be rocking Friday night when the Red Wings and Blackhawks finish their season-series in front of the 210th consecutive sellout at the United Center. … The Blackhawks, who became the first team to reach the 60-point plateau with their 1-0 win at Nashville on Saturday and clinched a playoff berth with a 5-3 win over the Predators on Sunday, have been the story of this lockout-shortened season. They set an all-time league record by starting the season with at least a point in 24 straight games, and they’ve been the league’s best in one-goal games too, owning a 16-3-4 record in one-goal contests this season. … Patrick Kane continues to lead the conference in scoring and shares the team high with 12 multi-point games this season. The Blackhawks are 81-9-13 in his career when Kane posts a multi-point game, including a 11-1-0 mark this year.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Brandon Saad is one of the hottest rookies of late, playing on a dynamic line with Marian Hossa, who returned from injury last week, and captain Jonathan Toews. Saad, the former standout for the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit, has collected points in 14 of the last 19 games, including six goals, and is third among league rookies in points (23) and assists (15). He enjoyed the first multiple-goal game of his NHL career when he scored twice in Chicago’s 7-1 win at Detroit on Easter Sunday.
SUNDAY – at NASHVILLE (15-16-8): After a road-heavy first 30 games, the Predators began a stretch of 12 home games out of their last 18 on March 21. Nashville has posted a 10-5-4 record at Bridgestone Arena this season, and have been one of the league’s best home teams since the beginning of the 2005-06 season, compiling 191 home victories, tied for third most in the NHL in that span. Nashville is also the only NHL team to post at least 23 home victories in seven consecutive seasons. … Obviously, that streak ends with the lockout-shortened campaign.
PLAYER TO WATCH: The first-ever draft pick of the Predators’ franchise, Grosse Pointe native David Legwand leads the team in points this season. He has six points, including three goals in the last six games, and 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) in his last 17 games. Nashville’s all-time leading scorer is just one goal shy of 200 for his 13-season career. … Always considered a clutch performer, seven of Legwand’s 11 goals this year have come in the third period; in 2011-12 he scored 12 of his 19 goals in the third period or overtime.
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose
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