PITTSBURGH, Pa. - If the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins meet in the first round of the NHL playoffs, things will be different than they were Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center.
The Red Wings will likely have Jimmy Howard in goal and are hopeful captain Henrik Zetterberg will return from an extended injury absence. The Penguins should get Evgeni Malkin back from a foot injury, too.
But in outplaying Pittsburgh and tying the score late in the third period before losing 4-3 in a shootout, Detroit showed that it could present serious matchup problems for the Metropolitan Division champions.
"I thought our team played real well tonight. I thought we were better than them," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said after the shootout loss clinched a playoff spot. "We carried play, in my opinion, tonight, for sure. I thought we played well."
By getting a point on the same night the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Dallas Stars, the Red Wings fell to the Eastern Conference's second wild-card spot, even though each team has 91 points. As Babcock pointed out, the Blue Jackets have the tiebreaker that could give them Pittsburgh, while the Red Wings get the Bruins.
"I'm not spending a whole lot of time awake worrying about this stuff," he said. "We're just in and whoever we get, we're going to be a tough out."
Babcock said his Red Wings didn't score as many goals as they should have, partially a product of a strong game from Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. But they also put 37 shots on net to the Penguins' 24, giving up two of three goals on the power play and another when Jonas Gustavsson couldn't hang on to a puck and Jussi Jokinen poked it in.
"We've matched up well against them," said forward Riley Sheahan, whose goal with 1:15 left got Detroit the point it needed. "They're a really skilled team and we've got some skill as well.
"If we're matched up against them or whoever else, it's going to be a lot of fun."
Fleury likewise said it would be a "fun matchup," though one that could see him tested a year after another disappointing playoff showing. This is the same team Fleury beat to win the Stanley Cup in 2009, though only a handful of players remain.
"I think there's no easy team that will make the playoffs," Fleury said. "Detroit's a good team, they play hard, they got some skills. ... It's going to be a good challenge for us."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after his team's morning skate that aspects of the game could affect a potential playoff series, like if one team scored three times on the power play or one player won all his faceoff attempts.
Pittsburgh went 2-for-4 on the power play, so that was good enough.
"I don't think we were going to analyze the score of the game and project forward if it is a possible playoff matchup," Bylsma said. "We wanted to do certain things in areas of the game and maybe have that be a statement for how we played. Tonight we did that with the power play, for sure."
Any statements made in the shootout can be overlooked, whether it was Fleury channelling Dominik Hasek for a diving save or Jussi Jokinen scoring the winner off the shaft of Gustavsson's stick. If this were a playoff game, the Red Wings and Penguins would've kept playing.
That's not necessary yet, as Jokinen thinks these teams know each other well enough.
"I think maybe it helps both teams. I think both teams are pretty familiar," Jokinen said. "They are in-your-face all the time. They play that man-to-man, very aggressive all over the ice. At times we did a good job of that, and at times we need to be better and do a better job making sure we get the pucks out and get pucks behind them."
Follow @SWhyno on Twitter