BUFFALO, N.Y. – Now it’s down to the big one.
One more point and the Red Wings can breathe easier – but they won’t.
Their 4-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres Tuesday night means the Red Wings are one point shy of clinching a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs for a 23rd straight season.
While the streak is amazing on its own merit, making the playoffs with a roster that has featured 15 minor-leaguers at different points throughout the season is the most gratifying for this Red Wings’ team, who out of necessity has used 37 different players, the highest total since the 1990-91 campaign.
“They’re playing real hard, added some guys tonight,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said of the Sabres, the league’s worst team. “This time of year when you’re out (of the playoff race) you play with house money and just roll.”
And that’s what presented a challenge for the Red Wings. The Sabres have nothing to lose and it showed as they took a 1-0 lead early in the second period on Zemgus Girgensons’ first goal of the game. He later added another goal to cut the Red Wings’ lead to 3-2 at 17:49 of the third period.
Goalie Jimmy Howard made 25 saves in picking up his season-high fourth consecutive victory of the season, while third-period goals by Darren Helm, David Legwand and an empty-netter by Pavel Datsyuk gave the Red Wings their fifth win in the past six games. Defenseman Brendan Smith also scored in the second period.
The win gives the Red Wings 90 points, keeping them a point ahead of Columbus for the first wild-card spot. The Blue Jackets beat Phoenix in overtime Tuesday to keep pace with Detroit. The Jackets’ win, coupled by Tampa Bay’s 3-0 home win over Toronto eliminated the Maple Leafs, who only a month ago had a 10-point lead over the Red Wings.
“It’s a good win because we needed points with everybody playing tonight and everybody climbing and still in the playoffs,” said Datsyuk, who scored his second goal since returning from a knee injury. “Hard to play Buffalo, they want to improve because some guys want to be signed for next year.”
Still, two teams – Washington and idle New Jersey – are chasing the Red Wings, though their chances are on life-support. The Capitals claimed a 4-1 win to stay four points behind Columbus and five points behind Detroit in the Eastern Conference wild-card race.
Both Washington and New Jersey can be bounced from the playoff picture on Wednesday if Detroit gets a point in Pittsburgh and the Blue Jackets pickup two points in their makeup game at Dallas. If this scenario occurs then the only other business in the East will be to determine who finishes as the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds between the Wings and Blue Jackets.
“We’ll try to get that tomorrow,” Johan Franzen said. “We got a few chances here but we just got to keep playing like we’re playing, can’t think too much about that. Keep doing things right and getting ready for the playoffs.”
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose
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