DETROIT – If the Stanley Cup playoffs began today the Red Wings would lock horns with the Pittsburgh Penguins in a best-of-seven game first-round series.
But with so much late-season turbulence in the standings, it appears that this year’s playoff race is headed to the wire as six – maybe even seven – different teams could move up or down in the order.
Saturday’s loss in Montreal snapped the Red Wings’ four-game winning streak. It was a setback, albeit not catastrophic, for a Detroit team that continues to control its own playoff destiny.
“We needed those two points and it's frustrating to lose a game like that,” said rookie Luke Glendening, who scored his first career goal in the 5-3 loss to the Canadiens. “Coach (Mike Babcock) talks about focusing on details a lot and I think we kind of got away from that, whether it was the excitement of the building, the excitement of the game or just kind of the loss of focus, I'm not sure.
“I thought there were too many times when we lost focus and, you know, that cost us in the end.”
The Red Wings begin the week with a one-point lead over Columbus for the first wild-card spot. They also have a four-point cushion over New Jersey and Toronto, a pair of teams headed in opposite directions though.
Still, Columbus and New Jersey appear to be the biggest threats to the Red Wings, who need to get five of the eight available points to hold off the surging Devils and secure one of the wild-card positions.
So far, the only definite in the East is that the Boston Bruins and Penguins are locked in at the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively, in the Eastern Conference, meaning the first wild-card team will face Pittsburgh, and the second wild-card gets Boston.
The Red Wings wrap up the regular season with four games in six days, including three on the road in Buffalo, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Detroit will play its final home game Friday against Carolina.
The Blue Jackets have a tough road to hoe too, literally, with their final four games in five days, including road games at Dallas, Tampa Bay and Florida. While the Blue Jackets alone can’t eliminate the Red Wings, the Devils could become a serious threat to derail Detroit’s 22-straight postseason appearance streak.
The Devils host the Calgary Flames on Monday before finishing the season at Ottawa Thursday, and home games against the New York Islanders on Friday and Boston on Sunday.
While it’s realistic to think the Red Wings will wind up with wild-card spot, should they win out and Tampa Bay falters further, then there’s an outside chance that Detroit could finish in third place in the Atlantic Division and face the Canadiens in a first-round series. The Lightning has lost three of the past four. They have upcoming home games against Toronto, Philadelphia and Columbus, before finishing on the road Sunday in Washington.
If the season ended today, the Eastern Conference playoff matchups would be: Columbus-Boston and Tampa Bay-Montreal; and Detroit-Pittsburgh and Philadelphia-New York Rangers.
NEW PLAYOFF FORMAT: In the first round, the division winner with the best record in each conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the lesser record; the wild-card team with the better record will play the other division winner.
Teams finishing second and third in each division will meet in the first round within the bracket headed by their respective division winners. First-round winners within each bracket play one another in the second round to determine the four participants in the conference finals.
Home-ice advantage through the first two rounds goes to the team that placed higher in the regular-season standings. In the conference finals and Stanley Cup finals, home-ice advantage goes to the team that had the better regular-season record – regardless of the teams' final standing in their respective divisions.
With that, here’s a look ahead to this week in Hockeytown:
TUESDAY – at BUFFALO (21-46-9):
Center - BUF
Goals: 21 | Assists: 20 | Pts: 41
Shots: 195 | +/-: -17
For the third season in a row, the Sabres are headed for the links instead of the postseason. But this one stands out for all the wrong reasons for Buffalo, who likely will finish dead last in the league. The Sabres have lost their last six games against the Red Wings, making it the longest drought against Detroit in franchise history. The last time the Sabres registered a win over the Red Wings was Oct. 13, 2009, in a 6-2 decision in Buffalo. … This is the 120th all-time game between these new Atlantic Division rivals with the Sabres owning a 53-49-16 series record. … The Sabres have dressed 44 different players this season, topping the previous franchise record of 43, which was set in 1986-87 and equaled in 1991-92.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Center Tyler Ennis has made the most of an increased role during the second half of the season, logging 19:42 per game and producing 26 points in his 33 games following the season’s halfway mark. Ennis averaged 18:07 of ice time and recorded 15 points through the first 41 games of the season. He now has a single season career-high 21 goals. Ennis, who played with Darren Helm with the Medicine Hat Tigers for two seasons, is one of eight Sabres who dressed in both the first game of the season and last Friday’s game in Detroit. Not only does Ennis lead the Sabres in goals (21) and points (41), he also has a team-best 192 shots on goal. –BILL ROOSE
WEDNESDAY – at PITTSBURGH (49-23-5):
Center - PIT
Goals: 36 | Assists: 66 | Pts: 102
Shots: 253 | +/-: 16
The only team that can claim to be worse off than the Red Wings in the injury department is the Penguins. They are without forwards Marcel Goc (foot) and Evgeni Malkin (foot), who aren’t expected to return before the Stanley Cup playoffs. Goalie Tomas Vokoun (blood clot, forwards Pascal Dupuis (knee surgery) and Chris Conner
(hand surgery), and defensemen Kris Letang (stroke) and Paul Martin (broken hand) are on injured reserve. … Despite the adversity, the Penguins won their division for the second straight time, marking just the second time in club history that they won back-to-back times. … Chris Kunitz leads all NHL players with 15 first-period goals this season. His early-game production has been crucial in helping the Penguins compile a 36-4-1 record when scoring the opening goal. … Last week, Brooks skated in his 700th career NHL game to become just the fifth player in franchise history –and the first defenseman – to reach that mark joining Mario Lemieux (915), Jaromir Jagr (806), Jean Pronovost (753) and Rick Kehoe (722).
PLAYER TO WATCH: For the fifth time in his career, center Sidney Crosby has topped the 100-point mark in a season. He is running away with the NHL’s scoring title despite playing for a team that has lost more than 500 man-games to injury. He's also making a strong case for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. He’s in the midst of a six-game point streak for the Penguins, totaling two goals and eight points. Crosby will likely be the lone player to reach the century mark in points this season, the first time he’s led the league scoring race since registering a career-best 120 points in 2006-07. –BILL ROOSE
FRIDAY vs. CAROLINA HURRICANES (34-33-11):
Left Wing - CAR
Goals: 31 | Assists: 21 | Pts: 52
Shots: 260 | +/-: -11
Friday marks the third and final meeting between the Eastern Conference foes, and the second matchup at Joe Louis Arena. Detroit won the previous two meetings, a 3-2 overtime victory at PNC Arena on Oct. 5 and a 4-3 home victory on Nov. 21. … The Hurricanes currently occupy the seventh wild-card spot, nine points behind the first-place Red Wings and six points behind second-place Columbus. … The second-least penalized team in the league, Carolina averages just 8.2 penalty minutes per game. But the Hurricanes aren’t too far ahead of the Wings in that category, as Detroit ranks fourth with just nine penalty minutes per game. … Carolina’s power play is ranked near the bottom of the league, 28th in the league at just 14.4 percent. The team’s penalty kill has been solid as of late, stopping 36 of its opponent’s last 38 power-play opportunities over the past 14 games. The Hurricanes’ road penalty kill of 83.5 percent ranks 11th in the NHL. … Carolina leads the NHL with 736 takeaways this season. Eric Staal leads all Eastern Conference skaters with 72 takeaways, and Andrej Sekera ranks second in the conference with 68. … Staal ranks No. 1 on Carolina’s roster in points (58) and assists (39), while Jeff Skinner ranks second in points (52) and first in goals (31), power-play goals (10) and game-winning goals (6).
PLAYER TO WATCH:
With the lone goal in Carolina’s 2-1 overtime loss to Ottawa last Monday, Skinner became the first player in franchise history since its relocation to register at least two 30-goal seasons before turning 22 years old. The forward recorded a four-game goal streak from March 25-31, tying his previous career high. Skinner also earned two assists in the Hurricanes’ 4-1 victory over Pittsburgh last Tuesday, extending his point streak to a career-high-tying six games, which ended two nights later against Dallas. –ANDREA NELSON
SUNDAY at ST. LOUIS BLUES (52-19-7):
Goalie - STL
GAA: 2.56 | Sv%: .922
Sunday marks the second and final meeting between the former Western Conference rivals, and the last regular-season game for both clubs. The Blues won the lone previous matchup of the season, a 4-1 victory at Joe Louis Arena on Jan. 20. … With a 2-1 victory over Buffalo Thursday, St. Louis set a new single-season franchise record of 52 wins. The Blues are currently in hunt for their second President’s Trophy in club history with 111 points, trailing the Boston Bruins by just two points. ... St. Louis has earned points in 14 of its last 19 games, and 12 in its last 14 at home. … The Blues’ special teams has been strong in 2014, denying 70 of their opponents 80 attempts since Feb. 1, and 48 of the last 53 in the team’s last 13 home games. St. Louis currently sits second in the NHL with an 86.2 percent penalty kill rate. … The Blues’ top line of David Backes (56 points), T.J. Oshie (60 points) and Alexander Steen (60 points) are the club’s top three scorers this season, totaling 11 of the team’s last 17 goals, and are also the top three forwards in terms of total shorthanded ice time. … St. Louis has five different 20-goal scorers this season (Oshie, Steen, Backes, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko) for the first time since 2010-11. The club also has five 50-point scorers, including Schwartz and Alex Pietrangelo, for the first time since 2002-03.PLAYER TO WATCH:
Since being acquired by St. Louis in a trade with Buffalo, goaltender Ryan Miller is 10-4-1 with a .918 save percentage and 2.09 goals-against average in 15 games with the Blues. Miller became the first goaltender since Brian Elliott in 2011-12 to win each of his first four starts, and is 2-1-0 with a 1.64 GAA and .942 SV% in his last three. With four games remaining in the regular season, Miller is just five victories shy of his season total with Buffalo prior to his arrival in St. Louis. The goaltender recorded a 15-22-3 record with a 2.72 GAA and .923% in 40 games with the Sabres. –ANDREA NELSONFollow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose