DETROIT -- Here’s a sobering thought for the Detroit Red Wings entering a massive game at the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; SN-PIT, BSDET, SNP, SNE, TVAS):

“We may not be here next year,” Detroit coach Derek Lalonde said Wednesday.

Lalonde means the Red Wings might not have an opportunity to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs next season like they do right now, and so they feel added urgency to seize it.

That’s not a knock on Detroit, mired in a seven-season playoff drought. It’s the reality in the competitive Eastern Conference, and it’s true not just for the Red Wings but for the Penguins, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers too.

Look at the standings: The Capitals hold the second wild card in the East with 85 points. The Penguins and Red Wings are one point behind, and the Flyers are two points back. Washington, Pittsburgh and Detroit each has four games to go. Philadelphia has three.

Now zoom out. Are the teams above going to fade next season? Are the teams below going to stay down? Lalonde didn’t want to name other teams but pointed to the New Jersey Devils. They have 79 points, but they had 112 last season, finished second in the Metropolitan Division and defeated the New York Rangers in seven games in the Eastern Conference First Round before losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in five in the second.

“I don’t foresee New Jersey not flirting with 100 points (next season),” Lalonde said. “You don’t get these opportunities (all the time), and we’re in one. So, we had an opportunity last night; we came up short. We have an opportunity tomorrow against Pittsburgh; we would like to seize that opportunity.”

The Red Wings felt they played well against the Capitals at home Tuesday, only to watch Washington win 2-1 and leapfrog them and the Penguins into the second wild card. The Capitals were 0-4-2 in their previous six games. Now Detroit has to go on the road to play a Pittsburgh team that is 6-0-3 in its past nine.

Meanwhile, the Capitals visit the Buffalo Sabres, while the Flyers visit the Rangers. Good luck predicting how the standings will look at the end of the night.

“It’s a waste of time,” Red Wings defenseman Ben Chiarot said. “It never actually plays out the way you think it would. We just worry about what we’re doing, worry about each day, and that’s it.”

Detroit will play at Pittsburgh without Andrew Copp (broken cheekbone) and Michael Rasmussen (upper body), two forwards with size and grit who could help with the hard hockey required at this time of year. The Red Wings called up forward Zach Aston-Reese from Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League; he has played 308 NHL games, including 213 for Pittsburgh from 2017-22.

See the First Round Stanley Cup Playoff matchups

Lalonde shuffled his top six forwards at practice Wednesday, putting Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Larkin and Lucas Raymond on the first line and David Perron, J.T. Compher and Patrick Kane on the second. The last time Detroit played at Pittsburgh, it lost 6-3 on March 17. DeBrincat and Kane played together, which ended up benefitting Penguins forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in terms of matchups.

“They did a really good job of checking them, freeing up Crosby and Malkin elsewhere,” Lalonde said. “I just think it adds a little bit of different balance. Obviously, we’re losing two very important pieces to our forward group with some size. I just thought it was an opportunity to balance our lines out a little bit going on the road.”

The Penguins looked like they were going to miss the playoffs for the second straight season March 8, when they traded forward Jake Guentzel to the Carolina Hurricanes. They were eight points behind the Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning, who held the wild cards in the East. But they’ve gone a tear, led by Crosby, who has 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists) in his past 14 games.

“The last two, three weeks here, we’ve been right in it,” Crosby said. “I think it’s brought out the best in us. We’re playing good hockey. So, I think that we believe in our game, and we just have to continue to do the same thing.”

Alex Nedeljkovic, who spent the past two seasons in Detroit, was in goal for the win against the Red Wings on March 17. He has started each game of Pittsburgh’s point streak, posting a 2.57 goals-against average and .913 save percentage in that span.

“Obviously, the Deadline happened,” Nedeljkovic said. “You acknowledge it, and you try to push it down. You try not to think about it, but it affects everybody. But I think finally we started to clear our heads a little bit, stop looking at the big picture, just focus on that one game in front of us, and, obviously, it's been really beneficial and had a really positive impact on everybody in the room.”

Pretty big game in front of them now. independent correspondent Wes Crosby contributed to this story