DETROIT – Still in control of their own postseason fate, some urgency looms as the Red Wings embark on the last five games of the regular season.
Following Friday’s practice at Joe Louis Arena, the Wings traveled to Minnesota where they will face the Wild Saturday night before returning home to host the Washington capitals on Easter Sunday.
Detroit’s magic number to clinch a Stanley Cup playoff berth is seven. Any combination of seven points gained by the Wings or seven points squandered by the Ottawa Senators will lift Detroit to its 24th straight playoff berth.
“A lot of us have been in this situation before, 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,” forward Justin Abdelakder said. “If you can get feeling good about yourself playing well than 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.”
Lately, health has been a chief concern for the Wings, though they may get one of their scoring leaders back Saturday.
According to coach Mike Babcock, Pavel Datsyuk could be back in the lineup. The top-line center has missed seven of the last nine games with a reoccurring a lower-body injury.
“Pavel will be a game-time decision, or a tomorrow morning decision,” Babcock said. “We played him on a line (at practice) today like he was playing, but we don’t know how it’ll react so we’ll decide tomorrow morning.”
However, Datsyuk, who has scored 24 goals with 60 points in 59 games, passed reporters in the Wings’ dressing room Friday and said “I’m good to go,” when asked if he was in the lineup Saturday.
The Wings definitely miss Datsyuk’s energy and craftiness. Since late January, he hasn’t gone more than a game without registering at least a point, producing nine goals and 25 points in his last 22 games.
Forward Erik Cole, who was acquired from the Dallas Stars on March 1, will not play. He has missed fives games with an upper-body injury. Forward Tomas Jurco is also expected to miss his second game with an upper-body injury.
Embattled goaltender Jimmy Howard is anxious for his first start in five games since he allowed three goals on 10 shots against San Jose on March 26.
“I feel good,” Howard declared. “I worked with Jimmy Bedard pretty much every single day, a half hour before guys even got on the ice too. So we’ worked on some things and I feel good about the game, and I’m excited to be playing again.”
Babcock said he plans to play Petr Mrazek on Sunday against the Capitals. But after that, the coach is taking the goaltending situation day by day.
“Howie is going to start against Minny and Pete’s going to start against Washington,” Babcock said. “We have to go win a game. We’re in a good situation that we’re in control of our own destiny. We have to play real well though. We have to find a way to get a win.
“We’ve had no luck with back to backs. So this way they’re both getting one, haven’t thought about it anymore than that. We feel this gives the best chance to have success in both games.”
The Wings certainly have a tall task in Minnesota. The Wild have been the NHL’s hottest team in the second half of the season. Since acquiring veteran goalie Devan Dubnyk from Arizona on Jan. 14 the Wild has enjoyed a plus-46 goal differential. With the Wild, Dubnyk has posted a 26-7-1 record with a 1.74 goals-against average and .938 save percentage.
Before making the deal for Dubnyk, Minnesota was 18-19-5 and in last place of the seven-team Central Division. Now, the Wild holds down the first wild-card spot, five points ahead of Los Angeles in the Western Conference.
“It just goes to show you, I think the team was struggling a bit, they didn’t feel they weren’t getting goaltending so this guy goes in and plays real well for them,” Babcock said. “He’s a big guy, seems to be square to the shooter, minimal movement. He’s good enough with the puck to help the D. He’s played real well for them. Goaltending gives you confidence. That’s real important. We all know that. He’s gone in there and has been solid and they’ve played way better in front of him.”
The Wild also owns the league’s top penalty kill. Since the All-Star break, Minnesota has killed 81-of-87 opposing power plays for a league-leading .931 success rate.
“Any time your PK is number one, your goalie is making saves and I know he’s been making saves not only shorthanded but all game,” Abdelkader said. “Just gonna have to make it hard on him, make it hard on their penalty kill, get shots, shoot to break them down and make it hard on them.”