DETROIT – Questions continue to swirl around the Red Wings’ locker room.
Will Pavel Datsyuk recover in time from a leg injury to captain Russia’s national team? Will Gustav Nyquist replace Johan Franzen on Sweden’s roster? Can Mike Babcock coach Team Canada to a second straight gold?
While most queries have been about the Sochi Olympics, the bigger issue is the Red Wings’ current standing in the Eastern Conference playoff race as they prepare for games against the Canucks, Panthers and Lightning this week.
Will the Red Wings get into the playoffs?
Following Sunday’s 6-5 overtime loss at Washington, the Red Wings enter this week with 60 points, a smidge ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers (60 points) for the second – and last – wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
“It doesn’t matter who scores if we don’t get two points, that’s our goal every time we go into a game,” said Nyquist, who enjoyed the first four-point performance of his young career on Sunday. “That (two points) is way more important. Didn’t come out the way we wanted in the first but we found a way to battle back. That was nice to see.”
The next six days leadin up to the Olympic break are critical for the Red Wings in their pursuit of a 23rd straight appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But with Detroit, Columbus, Philadelphia, Carolina, Washington, Ottawa and New Jersey all separated by two points, these six available points could be the difference between the postseason and an early start to the offseason.
This week, the Wings are facing a trio of struggling teams, which, in and of itself can present a trap. Both Vancouver and Florida have dropped four of their last five games, and Tampa Bay has lost three straight. However, against the three opponents, the Red Wings have accumulated a 2-2-3 record this season.
The Wings can’t let up on the goals-scoring accelerator and striking first blood will only help their plight. Detroit has averaged 3.33 goals in the last six games, which is up from 2.65 in the previous 46 games. Unfortunately, their goals against has also increased.
But like Babcock has said all season long, the Wings are better off when they focus on things that they can control.
With that, here’s a look ahead to this week in Hockeytown:
MONDAY – vs. VANCOUVER (27-20-9):
Center - VAN
Goals: 19 | Assists: 18 | Pts: 37
Shots: 196 | +/-: -6
This will be the Red Wings’ final home game before the Olympic break. The Canucks, who are in the midst of a five-game road trip, are without defenseman Kevin Bieksa until after the break with an undisclosed injury. Defenseman Andrew Alberts (concussion) is out, and forward Mike Santorelli had season-ending shoulder surgery on last Thursday. Top-line center Henrik Sedin (ribs) hasn't played since Jan. 18, though the Canucks hope he'll be able to return during this trip. … Scoring was a problem in January for the Canucks, who were held to two or fewer goals in 10 of 15 games. They have a 5-19-5 record when held to two or less goals this season. … After serving a 15-day suspension for his volcanic eruption against Calgary on Jan. 18, coach John Tortorella will return to the Canucks’ bench tonight at JLA. Without Tortorella, Vancouver posted a 2-4-0 record. … Vancouver has the NHL's fourth ranked penalty kill with an 85.6 percent success rate. Twice this season, the Canucks have not allowed a power-play goal for seven consecutive games.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Livonia native Ryan Kesler has five game-winning goals, which is tied for fourth in the league, four behind Anaheim’s Corey Perry. Kesler is now two game-winning goals from tying his season best seven (2010-11), and his 25 career game-winners is ninth-best in the franchise history, one behind Thomas Gradin. … Kesler produced a season-high three points in the Canucks’ last game, a 4-3 loss at Winnipeg Friday night. He now has eight points in his last six games.
THURSDAY – at FLORIDA (21-27-7):
Right Wing - FLA
Goals: 15 | Assists: 11 | Pts: 26
Shots: 132 | +/-: 1
Despite a two-goal deficit entering the third period, the Panthers rallied behind Nick Bjugstad’s shootout winner, while goalie Tim Thomas stopped all Detroit shooters for the 5-4 victory on Jan. 26. … Rookie center Aleksander Barkov returned to the lineup after sitting out four straight games with a knee injury. The 6-foot-3 Finnish star posted a minus-2 rating in his return. Barkov, 18, who is the youngest player on Finland's national team roster, will be making his first appearance in the Winter Olympics. … Defenseman Brian Campbell has produced five goals and 18 assists in 55 games. Barring injuries, he shouldn't have any problems reaching the 30-point mark for the seventh time in his career.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Should there be a need to settle this game with the skills competition, watch out for the league’s best active goal-scorer in the shootout. Lats month, Panthers forward Brad Boyes netted his 37th career SO goal in a 2-1 win over Buffalo on Jan. 9. His lifetime 46.8 percent success rate is best among active skaters, and he’s tied for second among league leaders with six SO goals this season, including a winner vs. the Red Wings on Dec. 10. … Boyes has points in four straight games, with three goals in that stretch, giving him 15 goals and 11 assists this season.
SATURDAY – at TAMPA BAY (32-18-5):
Defense - TBL
Goals: 11 | Assists: 25 | Pts: 36
Shots: 110 | +/-: 8
This is the fourth of five regular-season meetings between these Atlantic Division opponents. The Lightning enters this week as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. Following Saturday afternoon’s 2-1 loss at Montreal, the Lightning are 12-9-5 in one-goal games this season after finishing last in the NHL with a 5-12-4 record during last season’s lockout-shortened campaign. Tampa Bay is fifth in the league in 5-on-5 goal differential with a 1.27 ratio. Steven Stamkos said he’s getting closer to return to the Lightning’s lineup. Says pain is “still sharp in some areas” though he’d like to play a game or two before he heads to Russia with Team Canada. ... A youth movement is underway in Tampa Bay, where 10 players have played less than 100 career NHL games, including four that have played in 50 or fewer contests. … Tlyer Johnson (35 points, ranked No. 2) and Ondrej Palat (31 points, ranked No. 4) are among the top five rookie scorers. ...Rookie forward Nikita Kucherov has posted a goal and three assists over his past six games. … Center Valtteri Filppula
missed his first game of the season, sitting out Saturday’s game in Montreal with a lower-body injury. The former Red Wing is expected to return to the Lightning’s lineup Tuesday at Minnesota.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Young defenseman Victor Hedman has produced nine points over his past five games, including three-assist games in back-to-back home wins over Ottawa and Colorado two weeks ago. Hedman is the first Lightning defenseman to accomplish that feat. … Last month, the 23-year-old played in his 300th career game, and leads all Tampa Bay defensemen in goals (11) and points (35). He ranks fourth among league defensemen in goals and is second among all skaters with four short-handed points.
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