Mike Babcock is confident this season's Detroit Red Wings are among the best teams he's coached. One look at the standings will provide all the proof he needs.
Babcock and the surging Red Wings look to continue their push toward the NHL's best record when they visit the lowly St. Louis Blues on Tuesday in the opener of a home-and-home set.
Detroit (50-20-6) hardly looked like the league's best team last month during a 1-8-2 slide from Feb. 7-29. But since then, it has reeled off eight wins in 10 games, clinching its 17th straight playoff berth and 11th Central Division title.
The Red Wings, who lead the NHL with 106 points, seek their third Presidents' Trophy in four seasons.
Pavel Datsyuk led Detroit to a 4-1 win at Columbus on Saturday, scoring short-handed and setting up two power-play goals.
Henrik Zetterberg scored his team-leading 40th goal, and Brian Rafalski added two assists for Detroit, which secured its league-leading 50th victory and became the first team to win at least 50 contests in three consecutive seasons since Montreal did it four years in a row from 1975-79.
"We don't have as many points as the team a couple of years ago, but we've got more depth, we're faster, we play harder and we have the will to win," said Babcock, the Red Wings' coach since 2005-06.
Detroit's depth has helped it boast one of the league's highest-scoring offenses, and Datsyuk is a big reason for that. The sixth-year center, who leads the team with 59 assists and has a career-high 90 points, has 10 goals and eight assists in his last 13 games.
Datsyuk also has three goals and three assists in six games against St. Louis (30-33-12) this season, scoring twice in a 4-1 home win on March 5 that helped Detroit even the season series 3-3-0.
Dominik Hasek, who made 11 saves on Saturday, had 18 in that victory, but is expected to sit out Tuesday because of the flu, meaning Chris Osgood likely will be in net.
Osgood, who is 3-1-0 with a 1.58 goals-against average in his last five starts, is 2-1-0 with two shutouts and an 0.89 GAA in four appearances against the Blues this season.
|The St. Louis Blues and the Detroit Red Wings have alternated wins and losses so far in their season series. If tonight's game goes according to that pattern, the Blues can be expected to win. (AP Photo/Bill Boyce)
He was in net for a 5-0 win on Dec. 26 in the Red Wings' lone victory in three games this season at Scottrade Center, where they are 7-3-1 since the start of 2005-06.
St. Louis, however, is 4-5-1 in its last 10 home games, and hasn't played on home ice since beating Los Angeles on March 4.
The Blues went 1-6-2 on their season-high, nine-game road trip, capping it with a 4-3 overtime loss at Chicago on Sunday. Hannu Toivonen made 27 saves for St. Louis, which has just two wins in its last 16 games overall.
"We've competed in every game with the exception of one," Blues coach Andy Murray said. "Our team competes hard on a nightly basis.
"What we need to do is find a way to turn these losses into wins, because our compete level is pretty strong."
With seven games remaining, St. Louis is likely to miss the playoffs for a third straight season - the longest drought in team history.
Toivonen's lone appearance against Detroit was a relief effort on Dec. 26.
Manny Legace, who is 2-8-2 with a 3.20 GAA in his last 13 starts, has posted a 2.76 GAA while starting all six games against the Red Wings this season.
In 28 games against St. Louis, Zetterberg has 14 goals and 32 points - his most against any opponent.