The Detroit Red Wings are looking up at almost every other team in the Eastern Conference, seven points out of a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs coming out of the All-Star break. And for the past six weeks, all goaltender Jimmy Howard has been able to do is watch while the Red Wings found themselves more and more likely to see their 25-season playoff streak come to an end.
"It can be frustrating," Howard said. "You want to be out there and you want to help, and when you're in the back and you're rehabbing and you're training and you're trying to get back in the lineup, you feel helpless. You wish there was more you could do for your teammates."
Howard has not played since Dec. 20, when he sprained the MCL in his right knee against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but his absence looks like it will soon be coming to an end. He will need a few more practices and perhaps a couple of games with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League before returning.
Video: DET@TBL: Howard makes two pad stops on Boyle in front
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
The question will be whether Howard can quickly return to the way he was playing before he was injured, when he had a 1.96 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in 17 games, numbers that were among the best in the NHL. That question is compounded by the fact that neither of the other two Detroit goaltenders have performed as well; Petr Mrazek has a 3.16 GAA and .894 save percentage, and rookie Jared Coreau is at 2.90 and .907.
"I just think I quieted my game a little bit," Howard said. "Not as aggressive as I was in the past. Basically, it wasn't reinventing the wheel or anything like that. It was just not being as aggressive out there and just letting the play come to me.
"It's going to be imperative [to recapture that quickly]. Can't be that time of, 'Oh, you're just getting back in the lineup, take your time.'"
Because the Red Wings need to win and they need to win now.
It is not easy for rehabbing players to return to the lineup this season, given the condensed schedule. There is little practice time, and coaches often would rather have players rest than subject them to full sessions. That's why Howard understands that it might take a few games in Grand Rapids to get him back up to speed.
"Definitely need practices," Howard said. "Being out there with the guys, having them shoot on me. It's one thing to keep your legs under you, just working with your goalie coach, but it's another thing when you get in there and guys are getting shots and you've got to read them off the play instead of knowing exactly where your goalie coach is going to position you."
Video: DET@TBL: Howard stones Killorn on a breakaway attempt
For now, Howard is balancing the want and need to return quickly with the desire to not have any setbacks with his knee. When he returns, he wants to return for good. Because to come back for a short period and then have to sit out another week or month "would be horrible," Howard said.
Plus, he knows the Red Wings need him. And he wants to be there for them.
"Every single night, it's so important for us right now," Howard said. "We've been dealing with it now for several years, just scraping and clawing to try to get into the playoffs, and once you get in, anything can really happen."
Intradivision trade partners
General managers don't like to make trades within their division, knowing that the player they trade away could come back to haunt them again, and again, and again. But Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin and Lightning GM Steve Yzerman did just that Thursday in a trade that sent defenseman Nikita Nesterov from the Lightning to the Canadiens for defense prospect Jonathan Racine and a sixth-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.
"You never see things coming," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "We were getting ready for warmups, and he wasn't out there, so we knew something had happened. It's what [stinks] sometimes about this business, is seeing guys leave, but it's part of the business as well.
"Sometimes you need to change something and you trust what the organization is trying to do. Montreal will get a good offensive defenseman with high upside."
Nesterov, 23, who is set to become a restricted free agent July 1, has eight goals and 20 assists in 119 NHL games. He has yet to play in a game for Montreal but affords the Canadiens some depth in their defense ranks.
"Very offensive," Hedman said of his former teammate. "He's got a good shot, very good on the power play. He's still young, he's still under development, but I'm sure he's going to turn out to be a good player."
But might the Lightning live to regret a trade with a close competitor?
"We play Montreal a lot, obviously," Hedman said. "But we trust the organization. We trust the management [that] they're doing the right thing. So all we can do is focus on what we can control; that's winning hockey games."
If you're looking to watch some impressive power-play units, watch the Atlantic Division. Of the top six teams in the NHL in power-play percentage, four of them hail from the Atlantic, with the Canadiens second (23.5 percent), the Toronto Maple Leafs third (23.3), the Lightning fourth (22.8) and the Buffalo Sabres sixth (22.5). Of course, the division also has the worst power-play unit in the NHL; the Red Wings have scored on 18 of 162 man-advantage opportunities (11.1 percent). … The Atlantic also boasts two of the top three penalty kills in the NHL, with the Boston Bruins second (86.5 percent) and the Maple Leafs third (85.4). The Carolina Hurricanes lead the League (88.1).
Games to watch
Washington Capitals at Montreal Canadiens (Feb. 4, 1 p.m. ET; SN, RDS, CSN-DC, NHL.TV) -- This is a matchup that we could see again, say, in the Eastern Conference Final. The Metropolitan Division's best takes on the Atlantic Division's best.
Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins (Feb. 4, 7 p.m. ET; CBC, CITY, NESN, NHL.TV) -- This will be a crucial game for the Bruins, who are trying to fend off the precocious Maple Leafs for a playoff spot in the Atlantic.
New York Islanders at Ottawa Senators (Feb. 11, 1 p.m. ET; TSN5, RDS, MSG+, NHL.TV) -- The Senators, in second place in the Atlantic Division, have been one of the biggest surprises in the NHL, and the Islanders have surged into playoff contention in recent weeks.
Buffalo Sabres at Toronto Maple Leafs (Feb. 11, 7 p.m. ET; CBC, MSG-B, NHL.TV) -- In the first edition of Jack Eichel vs. Auston Matthews, Matthews and the Maple Leafs came out on top, scoring four goals in a row in the second and third periods, including one by Matthews. The rematch should be no less interesting.
Montreal Canadiens at Boston Bruins (Feb. 12, 7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, SN360, RDS, NHL.TV) -- It's Bruins-Canadiens at TD Garden, another matchup of one of the all-time great rivalries in sports. And it will be even more important for Boston, which needs every win it can get at this point.