The Detroit Red Wings are learning what the rest of the NHL has known for the past few years: There really are "huge" games in January.
More importantly, they won this one.
The Wings moved back into the top eight in the Western Conference on Friday night with a 4-2 win over the visiting Nashville Predators. Jimmy Howard stopped 46 of 48 shots for the Wings, who are used to having a playoff berth all but locked up by now.
But not this season -- and not with the run of injuries that has decimated their lineup.
"It was huge for us," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "Howie was sensational."
The victory moved the Wings ahead of Calgary into eighth place with 61 points. Seventh-place Nashville also has 61, but has played one fewer game and owns three more victories. Detroit is trying to extend its streak of playoff appearances to 19, the most in any of the four major team sports.
Captain Nicklas Lidstrom agreed with Babcock that this was a win his team had to have -- especially with a five-game road trip beginning Sunday afternoon with a Stanley Cup Final rematch in Pittsburgh.
"I do think it was huge, especially playing a team in our division that was two points ahead of us for the last spot in the race," Lidstrom said. "We know we have to play with a sense of urgency."
The Wings avoided a season-worst four-game slide thanks to Howard's heroics and goals from Lidstrom, Jason Williams, Drew Miller and Henrik Zetterberg.
Detroit is slowly starting to get some key players back from injury, and the latest one to return made an instant impact. Williams, playing for the first time since breaking his right leg Nov. 7, opened the scoring with a power-play goal with 1:33 left in the first period. The Wings may also get forward Tomas Holmstrom back next week and could get Johan Franzen back before the Olympic break.
The Predators, who host Atlanta on Saturday, headed home after losing all four games on their road trip. They've dropped a season-high five in a row in regulation.
"We're letting teams back in it," defenseman Ryan Suter said. "We've got to turn it around or it's going to come back and haunt."
Francis Bouillon tied the game 57 seconds after Williams' goal, and Shea Weber made it 3-2 at 5:57 of the third.
But the Predators paid the price for a poor night by their special teams.
Nashville was 0 for 4 on the power play and has scored only once in 21 chances with an extra skater over the last seven games. The Predators also gave up two power-play goals and another goal came just seconds after killing a penalty.
"It really came down to special teams," Ellis said. "We were brutal again. We've had some meetings about our power play and our penalty kill. Maybe it's time to change things. You can't be 29th in the league on both sides of penalties and expect to win."
Lidstrom broke a 1-1 tie with a power-play goal at 5:55 of the second period, and Miller made it 3-1 at 8:57.
Weber's goal made it a one-goal game again, and it looked like Nashville was going to tie the game a couple of minutes later -- but Cal O'Reilly hit the crossbar.
Zetterberg gave Detroit a two-goal cushion at 10:12, squeezing a shot from behind the goal line between Ellis and the left post on a play that stood after video review.
"It was a fluke goal, the kind that sucks the life right out of a team," Ellis said. "I was a split-second late covering the corner."
The Red Wings were called for a penalty with 1:35 left and Nashville pulled Ellis for a 6-on-4 skating advantage, but couldn't get another shot past Howard.
"We really controlled the play," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "I don't ever remember getting 48 shots on them before. Howard was really good."
Material from team media and wire services was used in this report