DETROIT – Now … the plot thickens.
With three weeks left in the regular season, the Red Wings now appear to be in the driver’s seat as they look to increase their Stanley Cup playoff streak to 23 straight seasons.
The Red Wings picked up a point in their fourth consecutive game with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild Sunday evening at Joe Louis Arena. The OT loss, coupled with regulation losses by Toronto and Columbus, lifted Detroit into the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Red Wings enter the week with 80 points, just five behind Montreal for third place in the Atlantic Division, and with the same points as the Maple Leafs, who dropped a 3-2 decision at New Jersey. However, Detroit owns the tiebreaker with the Leafs, who have lost five straight and have played two more games then the Wings.
“The guys are competing hard, we're getting good goaltending,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “We've scored timely goals; we've had good specialty teams. I think just being competitive and being dialed in as a group has obviously helped us. We've just got to build off that. We've got to keep grinding.”
Since the Olympic break, the Red Wings have undergone a remarkable transformation, especially on home ice, where they began the season with an uncharacteristic 7-11-7 record. But since then, they’ve compiled a 9-0-2 mark in the past 11 games.
Despite the cavalcade of injuries, Detroit has increase its home scoring from 2.04 goals per game in the first 25 games to 3.36 goals in the past 11. The Wings have lost 351 man-games this season, which is the highest total since they lost 346 in 2003-04. Also, they’ve dressed 36 players so far, equaling the franchise record established during the 1993-94 campaign.
The Wings have 11 games left on the regular-season schedule with the next 10 against Eastern teams. Detroit’s season finale is April 13 in St. Louis against the Blues, who remain in the fight for the President’s Trophy as the league’s best team.
“These are huge (games) and this is what it’s going to come down to and who is going to make the playoffs, who is going to be the best team out there," said forward Gustav Nyquist, who has scored 18 goals in past 23 games. "I think we’re playing all the teams that are around us in the standings. That’s pretty much going to decide whose gonna be in.”
With that, here’s a look ahead to this week in Hockeytown:
TUESDAY – at COLUMBUS (36-29-6): This is the third and final meeting between the former Central Division rivals, and the second of two in Columbus. Detroit defeated Columbus 2-1 at The Joe on Oct. 15, and the Blue Jackets earned a 4-1 victory over the Wings at Nationwide Arena on March 11. … Columbus is currently outside of the playoff picture, occupying the fourth wild-card spot behind Toronto, Detroit and Washington with 78 points. The Blue Jackets hold the tie-breaker with ROW of 31 over all three clubs ahead of them in the wild-card standings, but were shut out by the New York Islanders 2-0 on Sunday, keeping Columbus from reclaiming a playoff spot. … The Blue Jackets’ special teams rank near the top of the league at home, as their penalty kill ranks sixth (85.4%) and power play is ninth (20.5). The club’s nine shorthanded goals are tied for third in the NHL. … Columbus has a 10-6-2 record in the team’s past 18 games, and currently ranks third in the NHL in hits (2,169). The club has also recorded 368 giveaways, which is the second-lowest total in the league behind St. Louis (302). … Ryan Johansen leads Columbus in points (52), goals (27) and shots, while James Wisniewski leads the club in assists (27).
PLAYER TO WATCH: In the last eight games Sergei Bobrovsky has started in goal for the Blue Jackets, he has earned a 4-2-2 record while recording an 1.76 goals-against average and .942 save percentage. Through 50 games this season, Bobrovsky has a 27-19-4 record. The 27 wins are just one shy of his career best 28 victories in 2010-11 with Philadelphia. The 25-year-old is on pace to finish this season with 32 victories. In the last meeting with the Wings, on March 11, Bobrovsky stopped 39 of 40 shots, including 10 power-play shots, en route to his 25th win of the season. – ANDREA NELSON
THURSDAY – vs. MONTREAL (39-26-7): Ths the third of four meetings between the Atlantic Division opponents, and the second of two in Detroit. The Red Wings have won both matchups against the Canadiens this season, a 4-1 victory at The Joe on Jan. 24 and a 2-1 overtime victory in Montreal on Feb. 26. … Montreal has struggled on the road this season, earning a 14-15-7 record away from Bell Centre. Although the Wings struggled at home during the first half of the season, they have earned an 8-0-2 record in their past ten games at The Joe. The Canadiens are just 2-4-0 in their last six games. … Montreal’s power play of 19 percent ranks 12th in the NHL, while its penalty kill ranks third overall (85.8%) and fifth on the road (85.1%). … The Canadiens are nearly unstoppable when leading after two periods, as the team has compiled a 25-1-2 record with a lead after 40 minutes of play. Conversely, Montreal’s record drops significantly when trailing after two periods (2-19-3). Defenseman P.K. Subban has 11 points in the team’s last 11 games, and ranks first on Montreal’s roster with 39 assists. Thomas Vanek leads the Canadiens with 58 points through 72 games.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Max Pacioretty has produced a goal and four points in his last three games, and currently ranks at the top of Montreal’s roster with 31 goals. Pacioretty’s 10 power-play goals, eight game-winning goals and 230 shots lead the Canadiens, and his 48 points rank only behind Thomas Vanek and P.K. Subban. The forward’s 31 goals are just two shy of his career high 33 goals, achieved with the Canadiens in 2011-12. When Pacioretty reached the 30-goal plateau for the second time in his career at Anaheim March 5, he became the first American-born player in Canadiens’ history to achieve the accomplishment. The 25-year-old hasn’t recorded a point in two meetings against the Wings this season. – ANDREA NELSON
SATURDAY – at TORONTO (36-29-8): This is the last of four regular-season meetings between these Original Six rivals. Gustav Nyquist netted two goals and Jimmy Howard made 31 saves on 33 shots in Detroit’s 3-2 win over the Leafs last week. … The Maple Leafs are one of the toughest team to play on their home ice where they have a 22-13-1 record. They posted a season-high seven consecutive home wins earlier this year. The last time the Leafs won at least seven straight home games was in 2006-07 when they won nine in a row at Air Canada Centre. … However, since goalie Jonathan Bernier went down with a groin injury March 13, the Leafs have lost four straight with James Reimer between the pipes. … Center Dave Bolland, who missed 56 games with a sliced Achilles’ tendon in his left ankle, return last Saturday against Montreal, playing between David Clarkson and Mason Raymond on the third line. Despite logging just 9:01 in ice time, Bolland won 8-of-9 face-offs and collected three hits in his first game back. … Defenseman Jake Gardiner has five goals – including one against the Red Wings last week – in his past eight games.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Not known for his offensive contributions, defenseman Carl Gunnarsson has three points in the past five games. His 14-plus rating and 163 blocked shots both lead the Maple Leafs. Through Saturday, only Flyers’ Andrew MacDonald, Calgary’s Chris Butler and Canadiens’ Josh Gorges has more blocks than Gunnarsson. – BILL ROOSE
SUNDAY –vs. TAMPA BAY (39-24-8): The Lightning are averaging 4.2 goals per game during a six-game streak without a regulation loss. Steven Stamkos has six goals and three assists during the streak, including a hat trick Wednesday at Toronto. The Lightning improved to 5-0-3 in their past eight games, their longest point streak since Feb. 2012. … Seems Teddy Purcell has been listening to his teammates desire to see him shoot the puck more. The 6-foot-3 left wing recorded his second multi-goal game and eighth multi-point performance of the season last Wednesday. … Calder Trophy candidate Tyler Johnson has five goals and nine points in his past 10 games. He ranks second in goal scoring among NHL rookies, and is two goals shy of breaking the Lightning rookie record set by Stamkos during the 2008-09 season.
PLAYER TO WATCH: After joining the Lightning as an off-season free agency signing last summer, former Red Wings forward Valtteri Filppula is enjoying a career year where he has already produced a career-best 24 goals. He extended his point streak to eight straight games with a power-play goal in Saturday’s 4-3 overtime loss at Pittsburgh. Filppula and Stamkos both rank in the top three in the NHL this season for shooting percentage. Since returning from a non-displaced fractured right ankle, Filppula collected career point No. 300 against Vancouver on March 17. He leads the club in goals and points (53), and is second on the team with 11 power-play assists. – BILL ROOSE
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose
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