Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The Detroit Red Wings have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the past 24 seasons. But that streak is in jeopardy; the Red Wings enter Wednesday even in points with the Boston Bruins in the race for third place in the Atlantic Division, though the Red Wings have a game in hand. If Detroit wins their final three games of the season, the streak will continue.
The first one comes against the Philadelphia Flyers, who have the same number of points as the Red Wings and Bruins but have played one fewer game than Detroit and two fewer than Boston. That gives them the tiebreaker in the race for the second wild card from the Eastern Conference.
The Flyers have used a second-half surge to overcome a slow start. They are coming off a 6-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday. Philadelphia hasn't lost back-to-back games since Feb. 13-14.
The Flyers (39-26-13) visit the Red Wings (40-28-11) at Joe Louis Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: Steve Mason has been lights-out for the Flyers since Michael Neuvirth was injured last month. Before allowing five goals to the Penguins on Sunday, Mason had given up two goals or fewer in seven straight starts. He's played nine straight games and 14 of the past 15. It was a big worry for them when Neuvirth got injured, but Mason has responded very well.
Video: PHI@PIT: Mason denies Kessel's midair attempt
Claude Giroux means so much to their offense and on the power play. He looks like himself again; an elite player and a superstar in the League. He leads the Flyers with 66 points.
Wayne Simmonds is a designated net-front man who never has to be told to go there. When you never have to tell a player to do the right things, it's refreshing as a teammate and a coach. He leads the team in goals and is one shy of 30 for the season.
Rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere continues to impress. Although he doesn't have a goal in 10 games, his style of game has changed the way the Flyers play. He has helped make other players better. To me, that's a sign of
Minuses: The Flyers aren't that deep on the blue line. And who knows: If Ivan Provorov's junior team (the Brandon Wheat Kings) is knocked out of the playoffs this week, do the Flyers bring him in? He's been dominant in the Western Hockey League this season, averaging more than a point per game during the regular season (73, including 21 goals, in 62 games).
The Flyers have overcome a slow start and enter the night hold holding a playoff spot. This might be the swing game that determines whether they get in the playoffs. The same thing happened last year, but Philadelphia was unable to overcome its poor start and didn't make the playoffs.
Lastly, when they get in trouble, the Flyers sometimes resort to getting too physical. That leads to trouble.
Pluses: Jimmy Howard has allowed two goals in each of his past four appearances (3-1-0). He's been outplaying Petr Mrazek, who had an amazing season prior to the past month, and should start two, if not all three, of Detroit's remaining games. To have a young guy take your job and then be there when your team needs you down the stretch is not easy, but give Howard credit for how he has handled it and how he has handled himself, to keep them in the race.
Video: MIN@DET: Larkin's shot deflects in off Suter
Dylan Larkin has come back around lately. After a long drought, he has goals in two of his past four games, and the Red Wings will need that out of him. He has been their most consistent offensive player this season. Center Brad Richards has played better in the past eight games. He has 27 points this season; five have come in his past eight games.
The power play has been better of late, which it's going to need it to be coming down the stretch. Detroit has scored a power-play goal in each of its past eight games.
Minuses: The Red Wings don't score naturally, which is a problem for them. It seems weird to say because of the players they have up front, but they rank 22nd in goals per game (2.56). That's why the power play is even more critical in this game and the remaining two.
By nature, they aren't a physical team. They have a couple of guys who can be, like Niklas Kronwall, but not many others. That could be problematic playing the Flyers, a team that's not afraid to mix it up.
Lastly, if there's one Achilles' heel is, it's their back end. It's not that great, even with Kronwall and Mike Green.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. The speed of the game. The young players are likely to be the ones pushing the pace.
2. Will the veteran players be able to slow the game down? Pavel Datsyuk and Richards will try keep the Flyers in check.
3. Special teams. The team with the better power play is the one I think will win the game.