DETROIT — The Red Wings have played 79 games in the past 178 days and their playoff lives has come down to the final week of the season. Again.
With 95 points in the standings, the Wings have one final home game against the Cariolina Hurricanes on Tuesday before traveling to Montreal on Thursday and concluding the regular season in Raleigh, N.C. for their second meeting in five days.
A sprint to the finish line has been an annual event in April the past few seasons as the Wings scratched and clawed to extend the illustrious streak of consecutive playoff appearances.
This season appeared to be different, sitting comfortably atop the Atlantic Division in mid-February and a significant cushion in the standings had promising signs of a postseason appearance.
However, a 5-8-2 record in March allowed several teams to close the gap and with seven days remaining in the regular season, the Wings are in jeopardy of missing the postseason. The Boston Bruins are tied with Detroit in the standings and the Ottawa Senators are nipping at their heels, just three points behind.
While many pessimists doom and gloom over the remaining slate of games, forward Justin Abdelkader oozes confidence knowing that his team has not only been in this situation before, but has thrived in similar scenarios.
“A lot of us have been in this situation before,” Abdelkader said. “I think just a couple years ago when we had to win our last four games to get in and then we kinda got on a run. If you can get feeling good about yourself playing well that you can get on a run and have a special year. We’re right there with every team in the Eastern Conference. I don’t think there’s much that separates each team. It’s just the teams that are healthy and playing well at the right time.”
Just last season, Abdelkader and company picked up five points in the final four games of the regular season to hold off a surging Washington Capitals.
Before that, during the 48-game lockout-shortened season the Wings had to win the final game on the schedule to sure up a playoff berth and keep a Columbus Blue Jackets team at bay in the old Western Conference.
This isn’t the team’s first bout with a playoff push and having that experience with a win-or-go-home mentality should bode well. While many outsiders keep a watchful eye on the standings, Abdelkader said the focus in the locker room is strictly internal.
“You just take it one game at a time,” Abdelkader said. “You can’t worry about what other teams are doing. You’ve gotta worry about yourselves. You can’t get caught up too much in the previous game. You’ve gotta learn from our mistakes and the things that we’ve done well and build off of those. It’s a short season now, playoffs are happening now for us. We’ve got to find ways to get points and win games. You’ve gotta play tight hockey, I think giving up four, five, six goals, you’re not gonna win like that in this league. Obviously, our emphasis is playing good defense and scoring on the opportunities that we get.”
Plenty of attention has been concentrated on the goaltender position during the Wings’ recent struggles. Both Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek have shown flashes of brilliance this season and then followed it up with less-than-stellar performances. Both have been chased out of the net due to poor showings just in the past two weeks. However, defenseman Danny DeKeyser, said the team’s struggles can’t be pinpointed on a single position and that the bulk of that attention was being misdirected.
“I think they’re taking a little too much heat right now but it doesn’t matter who’s playing in net for us, we just have to go out there and help them out the best we can,” DeKeyser said. “Make sure that we’re not turning pucks over and make sure that we’re clearing the front of the net as best we can.”
DeKeyser has been one of the most consistent blue liners all season long, logging the second-most time on ice at 20:58 per game and claiming a team-high plus-12 rating. His development on the back end this season has been a bright spot on a unit that has been bitten by the turnover bug in the last several games. For the Wings to close out the regular season, an emphasis on limiting turnovers and covering assignments in the defensive zone will be paramount regardless of who is in net down the stretch. Focusing on smart defensive play and simple decision-making by DeKeyser and others would propel this team to a 24th consecutive playoff appearance in the final days of regular season.
With that, here’s a look ahead to this week in Hockeytown:
TUESDAY vs. CAROLINA (29-38-11): The Hurricanes come to Detroit on the second game of back-to-backs, playing in Buffalo the previous night. In 15 prior instances this season, they are just 4-9-2 in games on short rest. A very young group, the Hurricanes are the only team in the NHL with four of their five leading scorers being 23-year-old or younger, with Justin Faulk (48 points), Elias Lindholm (39), Jeff Skinner (31) and Victor Rask (31). The least penalized team in the NHL, Carolina averages just 6.8 penalty minutes per game and even when they are shorthanded still pose a tremendous challenge. At 85 percent overall, the Hurricanes PK ranks fourth in the league and only gets better on the road, killing off a staggering 87.6 percent of shorthanded opportunities. A young team on short rest is vulnerable, but Carolina still possesses the tools to pull off an upset.
PLAYER TO WATCH: In his fourth season with the Hurricanes, defenseman Justin Faulk put up career-high numbers in 2014-15. The 23-year-old has scored 15 goals — one away from tying Anton Babchuk’s franchise record for most goals by a defenseman in a single season — and a team-leading 33 assists. A right-handed shot from the blue line, Faulk quarterbacks the Canes’ 10th ranked power play where he has seven goals and 20 points on the man advantage. At 6-foot, and 215 pounds, the South St. Paul, Minn., native is a strong-skating, puck-moving defenseman that is heavily involved with the offense much like Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators.
THURSDAY at MONTREAL (47-22-10): The top team in the Atlantic Division with 104 points, Montreal has reached the 100-point mark in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the 1987-88 and 1988-89 seasons. However, March was the team’s worst month of the season going 6-6-3 with 15 points and now a 0-0-2 start to April. The Canadiens will have a chance to become just the second team to sweep the regular-season series with the Wings — joining the Anaheim Ducks — giving up just two goals total in the previous three meetings. The Habs may be down at times throughout the course of a game but they are never out, as 91 of their 203 goals have come in the third period or later, including six of the eight goals they’ve scored on the Wings this season.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Goalie Carey Price is having a career season, leading the NHL in wins (41), goals against average (1.95), save percentage (.935) and shutouts (nine). The 27-year-old has appeared in 63 games including a 25-save shutout effort over the Wings on Feb. 16, the last time these two teams played. Price has been humbled in his last four starts, however, with a .887 save percentage and allowed three-or-more goals in three of the four contests. One of the hottest goalies for the duration of the season, Price seems to be cooling off in the waning moments of the regular season and this may be the Wings’ best shot at besting the league’s top netminder.
SATURDAY at CAROLINA (29-38-11): The last place team in the Metropolitan Division with 69 points, Carolina is 3-1-1 in its last five home games. Saturday’s match-up marks the regular-season finale for both teams, as the Hurricanes will miss the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season and the Wings in search of a 24th straight playoff berth. Carolina still presents a threat despite the unimpressive record, as it ranks in the top five in the league in shots against (27.4) and takeaways (718). A strong defensive team, the Hurricanes have held the opponent to less than 30 shots on goal in 18 of the last 22 games and goalie Cam Ward has allowed two-or-fewer goals in four of his last five outings. Finishing the regular season on a high note won’t come easy, as scoring chances will come at a premium on Saturday.
PLAYER TO WATCH: At just 20 years old, center Elias Lindholm has been a major contributor for the Hurricanes and will be an important piece for the future moving forward. The fifth overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft, Lindholm has appeared in 135 games in the last two seasons and has shown flashes of being a premier forward. He is third on the team in points (39) and plays a key role on the Canes power play with four goals and 15 points on the man advantage. Lindholm is still quite young with a very high ceiling for potential and loves to play at home, as 13 of his 17 goals have come at PNC Arena.