DETROIT – There’s still 11 weeks left in the regular season but the Red Wings are about to embark on perhaps the toughest fortnight they’ll face before the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Wings are amid a five-game stretch with four contests to come against some rough opponents as St. Louis, Chicago, Montreal and Florida will visit Joe Louis Arena between now and next Sunday. Detroit follows up this week with a road game at Philadelphia and a home-and-home against Washington.
“Really big homestand, we got some great teams coming in here,” goalie Jimmy Howard said. “It’s going to take 60 minutes or more these next four games.”
Picking up two points in Saturday’s controversial shootout victory over Los Angeles was a huge motivational lift for the Red Wings who are desperate for wins as they begin the week in a leapfrog battle as six points separates seven teams – including Toronto, Columbus, Washington, Ottawa, New Jersey and Carolina – for the two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference.
“We got a good break and were rewarded for it,” coach Mike Babcock said following Saturday’s win, which featured a Niklas Kronwall goal that shouldn’t have been allowed. “You get breaks against you lots. We had a number called back this year and that was a break we got and if you work hard over time you get breaks.”
Fortunately for the Red Wings, Howard has been magnificent this month. The veteran goalie who will represent the U.S. in the Winter Olympics in Russia in three weeks has posted a 3-2-1 record with a 1.89 goals-against average since the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor on New Year’s Day.
The Wings will need Howard to remain sharp if they’re going to have any success against a pair of old Central Division rivals with the Blues and Blackhawks visiting The Joe for the only time this season. In the last two seasons, the Red Wings have an accumulated 3-4-5 record against the Blues, Blackhawks and Panthers. Detroit hasn’t faced the Canadiens since a 7-2 loss at Montreal on Jan. 25, 2012.
“We just got to get Howie to do what he’s doing, that’s the key,” Babcock said. “You look at Howie’s numbers and look at how many times he’s played at home in the first half, Howie’s the key for us. When you got a shortened bench or a depleted lineup, if you get goaltending, you can hang around, hang around, you’re going to get chances, so that’s what we got to do, we need outstanding goaltending and we need goaltending early and then we’ll settle in and give ourselves a chance. We’re going to compete hard, I guarantee that.”
Regardless of the schedule, the Red Wings need wins as badly as they did last April when they ripped off four straight wins to sneak into the postseason where they played in back to back seven-game series against Anaheim and Chicago.
Detroit will quickly need to solve its goal-scoring woes, especially against the Blackhawks (179) and Blues (163), who are ranked first and third, respectively, in league scoring. The Wings have produced two or fewer goals in six of their last 10 games, and were shutout by the Islanders, Ducks and Rangers.
Injuries to key players have adversely affected the Wings’ offense. And now the injuries, which have come in bunches this season, has crippled the Wings up the middle, sidelining all four centers – Pavel Datsyuk, Stephen Weiss, Darren Helm and Joakim Andersson.
Andersson (lower body) is day-to-day, while Datsyuk (lower body), Helm (shoulder, groin), Weiss (sports hernia surgery), forward Johan Franzen (upper body), defenseman Jonathan Ericsson (shoulder, rib), backup goalie Jonas Gustavsson (groin, neck), and forward Daniel Alfredsson (groin, back) are all on injured reserve and not expected to play Monday.
With so many regulars out of the lineup, the Wings are benefiting from a deep pool of young talented import from their minor-league club in Grand Rapids. Young centers like Luke Glendening and Riley Sheahan are not only gaining invaluable experience, they’ve contributed with their tough, grinding style.
“I think last year is a good example. We had a lot of new guys coming in and it took a while for us to play the way we wanted to,” Henrik Zetterberg said. “We had some injuries last year, too. Guys came back for the last 20 games before the playoffs and we played well. It carried over into the playoffs. Hopefully, guys will come back for the last 20 games again this year and history will repeat itself.”
With that, here’s a look ahead to this week in Hockeytown:
MONDAY – vs. ST. LOUIS (32-10-5): In last year’s lockout-shortened 48-game season, the Blues finished with 60 points and the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. Through the weekend, St. Louis has already amassed 69 points in 47 games. And they’ve managed to do so without their underrated star Alexander Steen, who missed 11 games with a concussion. Steen returned to the lineup Saturday, firing a game-high four shots on goal in the Blues’ 3-2 home loss to Anaheim. Prior to the injury, the 29-year-old Winnipeg native had already tied his single-season career high with 24 goals. Steen leads the Blues in goals and his 38 points in 36 games which ranks second in team scoring to T.J. Oshie, who has 41 points. The Blues had their five-game home winning streak stopped in a 4-1 loss to the Kings last Thursday. The Blues’ lone goal came when Oshie converted his first career penalty shot. … Like the Red Wings and Blackhawks, 10 different Blues’ players will head to the Winter Olympics with Oshie, David Backes and Kevin Shattenkirk (USA); Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo (CAN); Steen and Patrik Berglund (SWE); Vladimir Tarasenko (RUS); Vladimir Sobotka (CZE); and Jaroslav Halak (SVK) all representing their countries next month in Sochi, Russia.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Pietrangelo and Nashville’s Shea Weber are the only league defensemen to produce 30 or more points and block at least 100 shots this season. The Blues’ D-man from King City, Ont., saw his season-high six game point streak draw to an end last week. Since the Christmas break, Pietrangelo has two goals and 12 points while helping the Blues post an 8-3-0 record in the last 11 games. Pietrangelo leads all Blues’ defensemen with six goals and 28 assists. He also leads the team in ice time, averaging 25:29 minutes per game, which is up 23 seconds from last season. In 16 career games against the Red Wings, Pietrangelo has a goal and four assists with a minus-1 rating.
WEDNESDAY – vs. CHICAGO (32-8-11): With their 3-2 shootout win over Boston Sunday, the Blackhawks improved to 25-0-5 when scoring the game’s first goal this season. Chicago leads the league with 3.54 goals per game and 179 goals scored. The Hawks have scored five or more goals a league-high 19 times this season. … Chicago’s 10 players that were selected to represent their native countries at the 2014 Winter Olympics are Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews (CAN); Michal Rozsival (CZE); Michal Handzus and Marian Hossa (SVK); Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger and Johnny Oduya (SWE); and Patrick Kane (USA). … Coach Joel Quenneville leads all active coaches and ris tied for third with Dick Irvin on the NHL's all-time wins list with 692 victories. Only Scotty Bowman (1,244) and Al Arbour (782) are ahead of the Blackhawks’ bench boss.PLAYER TO WATCH: Marian Hossa's first-period goal Sunday against the Bruins was his 20th goal of the season. He has now scored at least 20 goals in 13 seasons. ... Hoss'a second multi-goal game of the season on Friday marked a few milestones for the former Red Wings’ forward. His first goal was the 28th shorthanded tally of his career, tying him for first among active players with Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis and Los Angeles’ Mike Richards. Hossa recorded a season-high eight shots on net while extending his point streak to four games. He now has 77 career multi-goal games, which, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, ranks fifth among active players behind Teemu Selanne (131), Jaromir Jagr (120), Jarome Iginla (96) and Alexander Ovechkin (82).
FRIDAY – vs. MONTREAL (27-17-5): This is the first of four meetings this season between these Original Six rivals. Goalie Carey Price made a season-high 40 saves and defenseman P.K. Subban scored 23 seconds into overtime to lift the Canadiens over Ottawa last week. Montreal recorded the game’s opening three goals before Ottawa answered with four consecutive markers. Tomas Plekanec then scored the equalizer midway through the third period, setting the stage for Subban to score his third career overtime goal and first game-winner since April 5, 2011. … Since being called out by Montreal’s mayor for an early-season slump, center David Desharnais has produced eight goals and 15 assists in his last 29 games while ascending to the Habs’ second line duty with forwards Brendan Gallagher and Max Pacioretty. … The Canadiens have eight Olympians who will play in next month’s Winter Games. They are: Price and Subban (CAN); Plekanec (CZE); Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin (RUS); Peter Budaj (SVK); Raphael Diaz (SUI); and Pacioretty (USA).
PLAYER TO WATCH: A hamstring injury kept Pacioretty out of the Canadiens’ lineup for eight games earlier this season, but now he has amassed 21 goals, giving him 20 or more goals for the second time in his NHL career. The former University of Michigan winger has 11 points in his past nine games. It took 105 games before Pacioretty collected his first multi-goal performance of his NHL career. However, since then, he’s enjoyed 18 multi-goal games, including six this season. In games that the Connecticut native has scored two or more goals during his career, the Canadiens have a 13-2-3 record. … He has a goal and two points with a plus-2 rating in two career games against the Red Wings.
SUNDAY – vs. FLORIDA (18-23-7): The Panthers own a 4-3-2 record in their last nine games, and are 2-1-0 against the Red Wings this season. This is the fourth of five meetings between the first-year Atlantic Division foes. Florida has allowed two or fewer goals in six of its last nine contests and has played in 25 one-goal games this season posting a 9-9-7 record in those contests, including an 8-6-3 mark in one-goal games played since Peter Horachek took over as the team’s interim head coach in early November. The Panthers are 3-3-1 this month. … Brian Campbell is second in the league in average ice time, logging 27:59 per game. The veteran defenseman has skated 30-plus minutes in six of his last seven games played. … Calgary, Nashville, Ottawa and Florida have the fewest number of players heading to Russia next month to compete in the Winter Olympics. Rookie forward Aleksander Barkov (FIN) and former Red Wings forward Tomas Kopecky (SVK) will be the Panthers’ lone representatives in Sochi. For Kopecky, who was the Red Wings’ second-round draft pick in 2000, this will be his second Olympics.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Captain Ed Jovanovski, who grew up across the Detroit River from Joe Louis Arena, made his season debut this month by logging 15:54 of ice time with a plus-3 rating in a 5-4 win over Nashville. He had hip surgery last spring. The 37-year-old Jovanovski was originally drafted by the Panthers first overall in the 1994 NHL draft. He is third all-time among Panthers’ defensemen with 582 penalty minutes; fifth with 332 games played; and seventh with 99 points. He has played in seven games and recorded two assists last Tuesday that helped the Panthers to a 4-2 victory over the New York Islanders. Jovanovski is three points shy of joining Sergei Gonchar (788), Kimmo Timonen (551) and Dan Boyle (546) as the only active defensemen with 500 points in their NHL careers.
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose
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