– Detroit coach Mike Babcock is a master at keeping his team motivated through a long, tough regular season.
This year, however, Babcock is getting a lot of help keeping his Red Wings focused on the task at hand.
The assistance is coming from Chicago. And St. Louis. And even Nashville. All the Red Wings have to do is look at the bunched Central Division standings to know that a slip up here or there can be costly.
Detroit won its fifth straight game Thursday -- a 3-2 win against the Phoenix Coyotes
secured by Todd Bertuzzi
's spin-o-rama, backhand flip in the shootout. The Red Wings are now 4-0 in shootouts and have secured four of its past five wins after regulation.
"We know that no matter what we do, (the other Central Division teams are) going to keep winning. We just have to find a way to get two points each night. It's just as simple as that." -- Niklas Kronwall
That streak of clutch play allowed the Wings to leapfrog Chicago and the New York Rangers
for first place in the League as of Friday morning. The Rangers lost Thursday night and the Blackhawks host the Florida Panthers
on Friday night.
The Wings are also atop the Central Division – by that same slim one-point margin on Chicago. St. Louis beat Edmonton Thursday and now match theBlackhawks with 62 points. Nashville also won, beating Columbus, and while they might be fourth in the Central, the Predators have 58 points and are within striking distance in a division that might sport four 100-point teams by the time April arrives.
By next week, the Blue Jackets could be 30 points out of fourth place. That's a rough neighborhood.
In that environment, Detroit's marching orders are clear: Just win baby.
If it takes overtime, fine. If you need to use the shootout and win what goalie Jimmy Howard
calls "the skills competition," that's OK too. Whatever it takes.
The alternative is unacceptable: One bad night here or there and you can be lapped by the field.
"We know that no matter what we do, (the other Central Division teams are) going to keep winning," Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall
said. "We just have to find a way to get two points each night. It's just as simple as that."
Detroit has no problem with that at home. The Wings have won a franchise record 15 straight at Joe Louis Arena, with their last loss coming four days after Halloween. The road has been more challenging, especially with their power play producing just three goals in the past 41 chances stretched across the past 16 games.
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For a team that puts Pavel Datsyuk
, Henrik Zetterberg
, Johan Franzen
, Nicklas Lidstrom
, Jiri Hudler
and Bertuzzi, among others, on the ice with a man advantage, those results are head scratching. Still the Wings have won 11 of their past 16 games -- woozy power play, 13-13-0 road record and all -- and keep stacking points.
"Nothing's going on," Babcock said, when asked to critique the power play. "We're not getting quality chances, we're not wearing anybody out … we break in nice, we get a chance, they shoot it down the ice and the same thing happens again. We'll take a look at it, we'll get it fixed.
"All year long, we haven't been able to get it done enough on the road in our mind. We're back to .500 now. When you look at the National (Hockey) League, there's only about five good road teams and the rest of us are all the same. But we think we can be better. We think we're an upper-echelon team that should be better."
They are getting better. Detroit has won three of the past four on the road, completing a home-and-home sweep of the Blackhawks before registering shootout wins in Dallas and Phoenix during the past three days.
"You look at the standings, not just in the division but in the conference and points are at a premium here," said Howard, who is now 28-10-1 with a 1.99 goals-against average after making 31 saves Thursday. "We have to find a way to scratch and claw every single night. Come April 10, you want that home ice (in the playoffs)."
Howard, who will be going to Ottawa as an All-Star goalie, is no longer seen as a possible weak link in the Red Wings but is now an area of strength on the team.
"Right now I'm just riding the wave … being patient, being calm, not trying to overdo anything," Howard said. "Each year, I think I've grown and matured out there on the ice. I've seen a lot of things too, so a lot of things already don't faze me in my short career. You worry about the next shot and play the game."
The next shot, the next game, comes at home Saturday against Columbus. Two nights later, it's another stare down with the Blues, who are 9-2-2 in their past 13 games -- with both losses coming against the Red Wings.