RED WINGS (43-24-14) at BLACKHAWKS (52-22-7)
Detroit 8-1-1; Chicago 7-3-0
The Hawks lead the season series, 3-2, but Detroit took the last meeting on the strength of a five-goal second period, 5-4, March 7 at the United Center. Chicago's Andrew Ladd had a hat trick in the losing effort.
While each team has punched its ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Chicago and Detroit's final spots in the West's top eight are still up in the air in the regular season finale, with the Blackhawks taking aim at the No. 1 seed.
At one point this season it appeared Detroit's remarkable run of postseason appearances was drawing to an end. Battered by injuries, the Red Wings were struggling to keep pace with the rest of the West midway through their 2009-10 campaign. But as the team slowly got healthy, and Jimmy Howard
emerged as a force between the pipes, it's become clear that reports of the Red Wings' demise have been greatly exaggerated. As Detroit's regular season reaches its denouement Sunday afternoon, not only have the Wings already clinched their League-best 19th consecutive playoff berth, they just might be the NHL's hottest team. Detroit has won eight of its last 10 games, which could place it as high as fifth in the West standings when the season ends Sunday night.
The offense was cooled Friday by Columbus' Steve Mason, who made 45 saves before Detroit finally won on Todd Bertuzzi
's shootout goal, but in general the Wings have been scoring with regularity of late, Tomas Holmstrom
leading the way with 11 points in his last nine games. It was Howard whose shutout performance was largely responsible for the victory Friday, however, and if he continues to excel in net, the Wings are likely to give trouble to their Original Six foes on Sunday and be a particularly tough out in the postseason.
While the Wings managed to keep their playoff appearance streak alive, their run of eight consecutive division titles came to an end, and it's the Hawks who now hold that mantle. Of course, uneasy lies the Indian Head that wears the crown, and Chicago may face extremely high expectations when the postseason begins next week. Those expectations could be even greater should the Hawks win Sunday and wrap up the top seed in the West for the first time in 17 years.
Chicago looks to be in good position to meet them, however. If Detroit is the hottest team in the League, the Hawks, who have won six straight games, aren't far behind. Antti Niemi, who has been the starter for each of those games, has a 1.81 goals-against average over the winning streak, and is firmly entrenched as Chicago's starter after a season in which the Hawks faced many question marks about their goaltending. Niemi's staunch play in net would be a massive boon for a Cup contender that has little trouble lighting the lamp. With all the usual suspects pitching in -- Patrick Kane
and Jonathan Toews
have combined for 10 points in the last four games -- the Hawks, who have 20 goals in the last five games, appear to be rounding into form at the right time.
With Brian Campbell out following a broken collarbone last month, Chicago's blue line has been so thin that Dustin Byfuglien has been forced to move back to his old position as a defenseman. The change hasn't stunted his production, though, as Byfuglien has five points in his last five games. ... Not to be lost in the flurry of phenomenal rookie seasons by players like John Tavares and Tyler Myers is the performance of Howard, who may be the reason Detroit is bulldozing its way toward April. Howard is 12-0-2 in his last 14 starts with a 1.88 GAA in that stretch.
With the exception of Kirk Maltby
, who had season-ending shoulder surgery in late February, the Wings are expected to have a full lineup. … Chicago may be without Troy Brouwer (personal reasons) and Jordan Hendry (undisclosed), who are both listed as questionable.
Conspicuously absent from the scoresheet the last two games has been Hawks winger Marian Hossa
. Don't expect it to continue. Hossa has only gone three straight games without a point once this season, when Dallas blanked him on Dec. 29.
Pressure might seem removed with Chicago and Detroit both comfortably in the postseason, but with the potential of home ice throughout the playoffs at stake, there are stiff implications for the Hawks. While Detroit can still move in the standings, they can no longer have home ice in the opening round. Still, it would be surprising if the Wings didn't relish the opportunity to spoil the best laid plans of their oldest rival.