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Crunch time

by Dana Wakiji / Detroit Red Wings
Defenseman Niklas Kronwall will play his 50th career game against the Chicago Blackhawks Sunday. (Photo by Getty Images)

CHICAGO -- It's getting down to crunch time.

With just 18 games left in the regular season, the Red Wings know they're going to have to improve to make the playoffs for the 25th straight season.

"It's been like this most of the year, but every game is like a playoff game in the sense that you can't fall, you can't afford losses, you got to win as many as you can, you got to get as many points as you can," Wings coach Jeff Blashill said after the team's practice at Johnny's Ice House in Chicago. "We want to be a team that has a stifling type defense, we've been that at times this year, we haven't been that enough lately. We're going to have to be that in order to be successful."

In January, the Wings went 7-3-1, allowing just 20 goals in 11 games played while scoring 26.

In February, the Wings went 7-4-3, allowing 37 goals in 14 games played while scoring 38.

A large part of January's success was the play of goaltender Petr Mrazek, who went 7-1-1 with a 1.32 goals-against average and and .952 save percentage.

"The stretch he went through in January is not sustainable," Blashill said after Mrazek allowed five goals against the Chicago Blackhawks Wednesday night. "You don't do that for a season, there's no way."

Despite the five goals allowed, Mrazek wasn't to blame for Wednesday night's 5-2 loss.

As a team, the Wings allowed too many odd-man rushes, something they were able to get away with in a 3-2 overtime win in Dallas Monday but not against the Blackhawks.

"That's one of the key components really," defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "If you want to be set come playoff-time, you'd better tighten it up defensively. In those (games) we've given up, not just lots of shots, but quality chances really, way too much for our liking."

The Wings had a rare opportunity this week to hold practices on consecutive days Friday and Saturday.

"We've got to eliminate those types of outnumbered rushes to have a chance for success," Blashill said. "I think our offense comes from good defense posture anyway. I think being back above people, being back on the defensive side, that's how you create turnovers and transition opportunities. We wanted to make sure we got back to making sure we do a good job of that. Chicago's a team that certainly taxes you when you don't do a good job of it so we got to be real good at it."

The Blackhawks' main advantage over the Wings has been offense.

In January, the Blackhawks went 11-3-0, allowing 25 goals in 14 games while scoring 39.

In February, the Blackhawks went 6-4-1, allowing 31 goals in 11 games while scoring 33.

In addition, the Blackhawks are second only to the Washington Capitals on the power play, hitting on 23.5 percent of their chances.

That includes two power-play goals Wednesday night in Detroit, one 5-on-3 and the other 5-on-4.

"That's huge," Kronwall said. "That's what cost us last game. When I took that penalty, they scored two and if you look back, sure, we got a little bit of life when we scored the 3-1 goal but when you look back, it's tough to come back from a 3-0 deficit. They're a good team. They have some unbelievable skilled players. We've got to help ourselves a little bit more and stay out of the box."

The Wings have the league's 12th-ranked penalty kill at 81.5 percent.

"You don't want to get hooking and holding type penalties," Blashill said. "You're going to have some other physical penalties, you can live with some of those but certainly you want to make sure you defend with your feet and keep your stick on the ice."

MISSING THE RIVALRY: When Kronwall plays Sunday against the Blackhawks, it will mark his 50th career game against them.

That's more games for him against Chicago than any other team except Columbus (50) and Nashville (51).

Kronwall was asked if he missed the more frequent games against the Blackhawks when they were both in the Western Conference.

"Sure, 100 percent. Most guys do," Kronwall said. "Not just the players but the fans also. Chicago is one of those teams that you love to play against, one of the top teams in the league. We played them quite a bit over the last few years, with the playoffs as well. It's been a good rivalry but enjoy it while the games are on."

Sunday will be the Wings' only visit to the United Center during the regular season.

"It's a special place," Kronwall said. "There's no doubt about that. It's loud. Just the anthem alone is pretty cool. It's a fun feeling. But all in all, we just got to focus on what we need to do on the ice."

SMITH IN, BUT WHO'S IN GOAL: The Wings practiced Saturday as they did Friday, with Brendan Smith paired with Mike Green and Alexey Marchenko the odd man out.

Blashill indicated that was the way the Wings would play Sunday.

As for whether he'd decided on a starting goaltender, Blashill said, "I have but I'm not going to say 'til tomorrow."

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