The Detroit Red Wings did create some doubts this season to be sure, but now that the end is in sight, it looks very much like the Wings are not life-and-death to make the playoffs, and with a good push could reach 100 points again. The Red Wings have seven games to play and can finish with a maximum of 105 points.
Getting everyone healthy, as has been mentioned in this space quite a few times, is key. It also doesn't hurt that rookie goalie Jimmy Howard has looked like anything but a rookie. Of course, Howard actually is 26 and has four seasons of AHL experience under his belt, so he has developed a game coming into this season.
"It really, really helped," Howard told NHL.com's John Manasso of his time with the Grand Rapids Griffins. "The extra year down there was very beneficial for me and I was able to iron out some things."
"He's a guy that's done a good job for us," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "He's gotten us to the point we're at. The test of time is what he's got to survive. There're been lots of goalies that have come into the League and some even won the rookie of the year and then you don't keep it going."
Very true, but for now, Howard ranks among the NHL's goaltending leaders -- not rookie leaders -- and his play has helped carry the Red Wings to familiar territory.
"I think he's just been getting better and better, especially once he settled down and started feeling comfortable in net, he's been outstanding for us," Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said.
Aside from Howard, getting Johan Franzen back among the forwards, working primarily with Pavel Datsyuk, has been huge, and a healthy Andreas Lilja has cemented the top six on defense.
"I think we're really starting to show how we want to be playing the game, like we have in the past few years here," Niklas Kronwall told the Detroit Free Press. "We're playing more quickly on defense -- anytime anyone gets into our zone, we've been doing a better job of getting to the puck and making that first tape-to-tape pass a lot quicker. So instead of spending 30-40 seconds in your own zone, now we're on offense instead much quicker. Howie has been playing great for us -- some nights when we haven't been playing our best, he still has given us a chance."
Amazing season continues -- Patric Hornqvist's heroics keep the Nashville Predators strong season rolling right along. Monday night, Hornqvist scored his 30th goal of the season to force overtime and Francis Bouillon scored in overtime to give the Preds a win against the Florida Panthers and a three-point edge on the Red Wings for the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
"We didn't play a great game, that's for sure," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "We didn't have a lot of energy and a lot of juice. We had to get that out. The positive thing is, when we didn't have much going on today, we found a way to get it tied up and we found a way to win it."
Thanks in large part to Hornqvist, who has been a bright light in Nashville all season. As NHL.com's John Manasso reported, Hornqvist's 30 goals are more than Henrik Zetterberg, his linemate at the Olympics, and Tomas Holmstrom, the player to whom Hornqvist most often is compared.
Not bad for a player who was selected with the final pick of the 2005 Entry Draft and who scored just 2 goals in 28 games last season.
Predators General Manager David Poile hardly can contain himself with the idea that his team has a player who can prove as nettlesome in front of the net and creates as much havoc for the opposition as Holmstrom.
"With respect to Holmstrom, Holmstrom has a little bit of a longer track record," Poile told Manasso. "But the comparison is truly there. It's nice especially since we're playing in their division to have somebody to come back against them" -- he starts chuckling -- "having Holmstrom in the face of our goalies for years and years to have somebody in the face of their goalies."
"Well, he's been a surprise this year in being able to put up the numbers he has," Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "It's no surprise that he gets all his goals from the six inches in front of the crease. … To me, the game just slowed down for him. Last year the game was happening too quick. And that's just the threshold he had to get through as a young player.
"His courage to do what he does on a nightly basis is tremendous. It's the kind of admiration you would have for a Holmstrom and he's done it for a long time, so probably not that level yet, but in that direction. He's scoring goals where you need to score goals now in the National Hockey League, and you see the production he's getting and I think other players could take note of that."
It's official: Hawks slumping -- Sunday's 4-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets was the seventh in 10 games for the Chicago Blackhawks, and with the regular season in its waning days, the slump couldn't come at a worse time.
"Every time we let one game slip, it's getting closer to playoff time," center John Madden told Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune. "We all know we're not playing very well, and for whatever reason it's become a little contagious. We have to figure it out and get playing better."
"We have to ... realize we have a chance to win the Stanley Cup this year," defenseman Brent Seabrook said. "You don't get too many opportunities to do that. With this team, I definitely think that there's a chance here. I know a lot of the guys in the room do, too. We have to pull together and be better."
"We've got eight games (remaining), and certainly we're not pleased with the pace of our game," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "We had stretches in the second period that were effective, some shifts in the third, but not enough of it."
Did you know? -- Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom reached the 1,400-game plateau when he took the ice at Edmonton last Friday. Lidstrom, who has played his entire career in Detroit since entering the NHL in 1991, is the seventh player in League history to play at least 1,400 games for one team -- but he's the fourth Red Wing. According to NHL.com numbers guru John Kreiser, Gordie Howe (1,687), Steve Yzerman (1,514) and Alex Delvecchio (1,509) are the other Red Wings. Ray Bourque (1,518) and Johnny Bucyk (1,436) with Boston and Mike Modano (1,454) with the Stars in Minnesota and Dallas are the other NHLers with those long tenures.
Lidstrom is the fourth to play 1,400 or more games and spend his whole career with one team -- but the third Wing to do so, joining Delvecchio and Yzerman. Modano -- ironically, a Michigan native -- is the only other player with 1,400 games with one franchise, though he's done it in two cities.
Points to ponder -- After a shootout victory against Nashville, Mike Babcock asked reporters a question: "Who's the best team in the West?"
Babcock then answered and made his point.
"I think Chicago's probably the best team in the West, but San Jose might be," Babcock said. "I guess that's what I'm trying to say is, I don't know if you interview 10 people if they'd all give you the same three. That's how tight the League is now and obviously with our experience, if we can get into the tournament, we feel we have a chance."
Baby steps for Jackets -- There won't be a berth in the playoffs for the Columbus Blue Jackets this spring, but a positive sign for the team is that its young players are picking up their games.
In a 4-2 win against Chicago Sunday night, goalie Steve Mason got the win and made 33 saves. Winger Jakub Voracek had 2 goals and an assist, and Derick Brassard picked up a pair of assists.
"They really are this team's future," said "old guy" Rick Nash to Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch. "It's great to see them playing well and playing with confidence.
"You look around the NHL and other teams are getting big contributions from young players. We need that here, too. It's been great to see. It's a real good sign for our future."
Around the Central -- Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are no longer an item. Coach Joel Quenneville now uses Seabrook with Niklas Hjalmarsson and Keith with Brent Sopel. Why? "We tried to get a little balance there," Quenneville said. "When you're not winning, you mix up the lines, and you can always try mixing up the 'D' a little bit, too." … Another bad sign for the Blackhawks -- their power play is connecting at just 14.5 percent at home, last in the NHL. … Against the Blue Jackets, Chicago defenseman Kim Johnsson missed his seventh game with a concussion and Nick Boynton was a healthy scratch for the first time in six games since being recalled from Rockford of the AHL on March 16. … Forward Trevor Frischmon made his NHL debut Sunday night for Columbus at age 28. "The guy just plays a really reliable game," coach Claude Noel told the Columbus Dispatch. "He's not an offensive player, but he's a guy we can rely on to give us reliable, hard minutes." … Another Columbus rookie, defenseman Grant Clitsome, pleased Noel with his play against Chicago, just his fifth NHL game. Noel told the Dispatch that Clitsome was steady and smart with the puck. Coaches love players who are steady and smart with the puck. … After an unexcused absence at Saturday's practice, Blues center Patrik Berglund was a healthy scratch Sunday against the Edmonton Oilers. "We all know that he wasn't at practice yesterday, and as a result, there's consequences to our actions," coach Davis Payne told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "He broke a team rule, and this was our decision to take him out of the lineup tonight."