DETROIT -- The organ music playing during the second intermission at Joe Louis Arena on Sunday night almost seemed like it was borrowed from a nearby funeral parlor.
It preceded a furious finish to a tight game the Detroit Red Wings eventually won 2-1 in a shootout against the Florida Panthers, but felt a kind of apropos at the time.
The music, like the Red Wings' play to that point, was somewhat sullen and a little subdued -- despite the home team needing two points against the playoff-minded Panthers to keep pace in a narrow three-way Western Conference race with Nashville and Chicago for home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“We want to score more, but we’re getting chances (and) we’re getting better," said Red Wings forward Jiri Hudler, who scored Detroit's lone goal in regulation 5:30 into the third and added the deciding goal in the shootout. "We had another slow start, but as the games go on we’re getting better. We still have to work on it and be better in the playoffs, obviously.”
If the Red Wings (47-27-5) can find a way to consistently be as good as they were in the third period and overtime, their chances of making a long playoff run are pretty good. However, it could get ugly quickly if their recent scoring woes continue.
Detroit moved into fourth in the West with 99 points, one more than Nashville and Chicago, by earning its League-high 31st home victory. The Wings and Predators have played 79 games, one fewer than Chicago.
"At this point in the year it's any way you can get them," said Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard, who made 27 saves through 65 minutes and two more in the shootout for his sixth win in the tiebreaker this season. "I think we needed to play a tight one like this to be able to come out on top. I think it's huge for our confidence. They struck first, but we stuck to it and continued to push and tied it up and found a way to win in the shootout.''
It didn't look so good, however, while that ominous organ music filled an otherwise mellow arena after 40 minutes. Not only were the Red Wings down 1-0 on Tomas Fleischmann's late goal in the first, but also turned the puck in un-Detroit-like numbers. They had 10 recorded giveaways after two periods and finished with 15 despite a well-played and inspired effort in the third and overtime.
Something to be concerned about?
"A little bit, especially early on in the game where we were forcing passes ... especially through the neutral zone cross-ice and even in their zone," said Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom, who was responsible for one of the giveaways. "Instead of shooting it, we were trying for that extra pass. It hurt us early on. Once we stuck with it and started shooting the puck a little bit, we got the bounce to win the game."
That "bounce" was actually a couple of fortunate deflections on one play early in the third that resulted in Hudler's goal. Hudler scored his career-high 25th by wristing a shot from the right circle that appeared to hit Panthers center John Madden's stick and deflect off Florida defenseman Ed Jovanovski's skate before sliding past goalie Scott Clemmensen and into the net.
Just like that, the home crowd roared to life -- along with the Red Wings.
A play that happened just eight seconds later, however, really swung the momentum. Detroit's Kyle Quincey went to make a big hit on former Wing Tomas Kopecky off the ensuing faceoff and his elbow came up as he drove the Panthers forward into the glass.
Quincey's elbow struck Kopecky in the head and resulted in a five-minute major plus a game misconduct. However, the Wings were able to kill off the power play with some added help about halfway through from a tripping minor called on Florida's Dmitry Kulikov.
The Panthers, who went scoreless on six man-advantage situations, put just one shot on goal in the entire sequence, and Detroit used the emotional lift to dominate much of the remaining action. If it weren't for some superb goaltending by Clemmensen (31 saves), this game easily could've ended in regulation.
Instead, Florida's point sets the Southeast Division-leading Panthers (37-25-17) up for potentially clinching their first playoff berth since 2000 on Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets. All Florida needs is one win in its remaining three games to clinch a spot. The Panthers also stretched their division lead over Washington to three points despite dropping their 11th shootout in 17 tries this season.
"That was an impressive third period by (Detroit)," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "They did a good job of applying pressure. I liked how we responded to it. I thought our goaltending was excellent and ... you're looking at Detroit and it's not much different than the team you were talking about six years ago. There are a lot of the same players and they come at you hard and I liked the way we played tonight's game."
One of those all-too-familiar players for the Red Wings is star center Pavel Datsyuk, who didn't record a point but scored the first goal of the shootout -- which he called "boring" -- and nearly put his team ahead with just 4:40 left in regulation.
Datsyuk flipped the puck over Clemmensen's head from behind the net, but Clemmensen wisely saw it developing and ducked enough to foil Datsyuk's attempt to bank it off the back of his head. The puck, however, landed in the blue paint and kicked out front -- where Florida's Brian Campbell swatted it to Lidstrom in the slot for a shot. Clemmensen made the save and covered the puck to keep the game tied.
"It doesn’t matter now, right?” Datsyuk said. “That play, if it’s no score, no assist ... it’s a bad play. [Winning] was good. Now we go back in front [of Nashville]. It’s a good win and now we get the day off and go to St. Louis [on Wednesday]. It’ll be fun to play the first-place team in the division.”
"It's tough to get away from it with a board that big," Howard said of the large dry-erase board that tracks the standings in the Detroit locker room. "Every single morning you're reminded of where you're at and what the circumstances are. So, right now we're back into fourth place and we've got to continue to find a way in the next three to keep home ice for the first round.''
Florida feels the same about its remaining games and got a much-needed pep talk from general manager Dale Tallon on Saturday afternoon. The talk didn't last long, but Dineen said it was effective.
"That was a chance for our players to take a breath and realize that organizationally there's a lot of trust involved in those guys," Dineen said. "It's not something that he does a lot, but I thought it was a very strong message he delivered. It was Dale speaking from his heart is what it was."
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