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Wings tune up for playoffs vs. Jackets

by Matthew Mankiewich

BLUE JACKETS (32-34-14) at RED WINGS (41-24-14)

Last 10 -- Columbus 4-3-3, Detroit 7-1-2

Season series -- One final home-and-home, at the Joe on Wednesday and Nationwide Arena on Friday, and that'll be all for Columbus. The Wings, of course, have a playoff spot locked up, but they'll have one last meeting with the Blackhawks on Sunday before they can concentrate on their second season. Detroit has taken three of the previous four, most recently a tough 3-2 win on April Fools' Day.

Big story -- The Wings can still move up a spot in the Western Conference playoff pecking order, as they trail the fifth-seeded Predators by two points with three games left. No matter where they end up, right now they're a team nobody wants to play. For what regular-season matchups are worth, they're 2-0-2 against Phoenix and 3-1-0 against Vancouver. If somehow they dropped down to a lower seed, they're 3-0-1 versus the Sharks and 2-2-1 against the Blackhawks, 2-0-1 at full strength.

Given that, does the fact that they failed to win the Central Division for the first time in eight seasons and won't host a first-round series for the first time in 17 matter all that much?

Team scope

Blue Jackets -- They're still out there grinding, making the Blues sweat out a 2-1 overtime win Monday if only to hang on another day. However, the Jackets are doing it with an increasingly shorthanded roster.

Rick Nash had to sit out the Blues game with stiffness in his neck and back, participated in an optional practice on Tuesday and is still a game-time decision to play Wednesday. Forward Andrew Murray gets to go home a few days early thanks to a concussion sustained from a Keith Tkachuk hit. Just two Jackets, R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette, have a chance to play in all 82 games this season.

"I thought we played with a tremendous amount of courage," Blue Jackets interim coach Claude Noel said. "The lineup we had, as short as we were our players really responded well to the challenge."

Naturally, it all means some youngsters will get NHL ice time, particularly Michigan graduate Chad Kolarik, who made his NHL debut against St. Louis.

Red Wings -- With no home ice to play for, coach Mike Babcock hinted on Tuesday that he might rest several players in the final days of the regular season, particularly ones who log big minutes and didn't have the benefit of the Olympic break. Names like Lidstrom, Rafalski, Datsyuk and Zetterberg come to mind.

The rest of the team, however, still has things to work on.

"I think we are playing well," Babcock said to the Detroit News. "I don't think we've taken a step back at all. I don't think there is anything wrong with our structure or anything like that. But I thought we could have turned up our battle level a couple of extra degrees there Saturday against Nashville and I thought Sunday (at Philadelphia) we were fine, just could've gotten off to a better start."

One number that stands out the last couple of games is the turnovers -- 17 against Philly and 15 against Nashville. Detroit lost both games, 4-3.

"We need to smooth some things out," Chris Osgood said. "There are things you can sometimes get away with in the regular season that will come back to bite you in the playoffs."

Who's hot -- Nash leads the Jackets in scoring overall with 76 points, but has tallied 25 of those in his last 26 games, including 5 goals and 5 assists in his last nine. Jimmy Howard had started 25 straight games in nets before handing off to Chris Osgood Sunday; that's is the longest streak of consecutive starts for a Red Wings goalie since Tim "Every Day" Cheveldae started 29 in a row in 1991-92.

Injury report -- Blue Jacket defenseman Kris Russell missed his second straight game because of an upper body injury, but said he hopes to play on Wednesday.

Stat pack -- For all the misfortunes of the 2009-10 season, the Jackets did achieve some things. Their top-scoring line of Nash, Vermette and Kristian Huselius combined for a team-record 83 goals and 112 assists for 195 points. Each recorded more than 60 points, duplicating a mark reached in 2002-03. More importantly, the Jackets have five 50-point scorers for the first time in franchise history. Interim coach Noel is 10-7-4 since taking over for Ken Hitchcock. … Howard is 34-15-10 with a 2.30 goals-against average this season, and he will be the No. 1 goalie in the playoffs, but he is a rookie, which makes having Osgood available as an option all the more important.

Puck drop -- "You've all seen it; you roll into the playoffs and you are expecting to play one team and a different team than you were expecting shows up. That's what the playoffs are all about. There is a whole other level. Your forecheck game has to get better, your grind game has to get better, your backcheck has to be better -- it's a battle for every inch of the ice every shift. We have to keep finding ways to get better." -- Babcock on being ready for the playoffs regardless of the opponent.

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