DETROIT — The Red Wings have just two games this week — on the road against the Pittsburgh Penguins and at home against the Winnipeg Jets — for the sixth and final time this season. A well-rested and healthy Detroit team will look to continue its hot streak against two playoff-caliber opponents.
In the 21 days prior to playing the Penguins, the Wings will have played just five games giving goalies Jimmy Howard (groin) and Jonas Gustavsson (shoulder) time to heal up from their injuries as well as providing veteran players like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg a needed break before the calendar enters crucial months.
Gustavsson returned to the lineup last week after being sidelined since early November, and Howard is expected to return Wednesday after missing 10 games.
Since Howard’s Jan. 10 injury, the Wings have gone 9-1-0 and climbed into a first-place tie in the Eastern Conference. While they have had great success, Howard’s absence has been felt as the team has surrendered 2.40 goals per game in that span. The penalty kill, which struggled in January at 65 percent, was another area of concern in Howard’s absence as it surrendered a power-play goal in seven consecutive games at one point.
Just as Howard appears healthy to return, the PK unit seems to have worked out some of the kinks as the Wings were a perfect 8-for-8 last week on the penalty kill. It was the first time since the Christmas break that the Wings’ penalty kill had gone back-to-back games without allowing a power-play goal and with Howard back in net the unit should be much improved.
The Wings mounted two comebacks to defeat the Penguins and Jets in their previous meetings, but if coach Mike Babcock’s team wants similar results, they can’t wait until the third period to make moves.
Pittsburgh is one of the best teams in the league when carrying a lead into the third period. While the Wings scored three unanswered goals to defeat the Penguins in overtime of their last meeting, a 6-9-2 record when trailing after two periods does not suggest that Detroit could repeat such a comeback against one of the league’s top teams.
Winnipeg, on the other hand, has scored 52 first-period goals — third in the NHL — and has jumped out to early leads on its opponent. The Wings are one of the best teams in the league with a 13-8-3 record when the opponent scores first, and while that is a testament to their compete level, playing from behind is not an area that they want to make a habit.
A proven contender, the Wings will have plenty of time to prep for two important matchups this week against teams that provide two very different challenges. More importantly, it will be the last chance that the team will have to rest before a late push towards the postseason.
With that, here’s a look ahead to this week in Hockeytown:
|Evgeni Malkin |
WEDNESDAY at PITTSBURGH (30-15-8): January was the Penguins’ lowest win total for a month this season, picking up five wins in 12 games. Despite that, Pittsburgh is still in first place in the Metropolitan Division and is 20-2-1 when leading after two periods. However, one of those blemishes was the Wings’ 4-3 overtime win against Pittsburgh the last time these teams met Oct. 23. The Penguins join the Wings as the only two teams in the NHL with a top 10 power play and a top 10 penalty killing unit. The Pittsburgh PK ranks fourth in the league at 86.3 percent despite being tied with Winnipeg as the most penalized teams averaging 14.3 penalty minutes per game.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Center Evgeni Malkin returned to the lineup with an immediate impact on Wednesday, scoring the game’s first goal against the Edmonton Oilers. It was Malkin’s team-leading 20th goal of the season, a mark that he has now reached for a seventh time in his career. Despite missing five games with a groin injury, Malkin is still second on the team in scoring with 52 points in 48 games. He had four multi-point games in the month January prior to his injury and is tied with Sidney Crosby for most on the team with 14 this season.
|Andrew Ladd |
SATURDAY vs. WINNIPEG (26-18-10): On a six-game losing streak heading into Sunday’s evening matchup with the Colorado Avalanche, the Jets find themselves in fourth place in the Central Division and claiming a Western Conference wild card spot. Tied with the Penguins, Winnipeg has opened the scoring in 33 games this season including the last three contests. On Nov. 20, the Jets scored the first and second goals of the game but that wasn’t enough to hold off the Wings who mounted a third-period comeback to win 4-3. While the Jets have made a habit out of jumping out to early leads, the offense seems to fade as the game progresses with just 39-of-140 total goals being scored in the third period.
PLAYER TO WATCH: With 45 points, forward Andrew Ladd leads the Jets as he has done in two of the previous three seasons. He has one goal and five points in the four games prior to Sunday’s game. That is a promising sign for the 29-year-old, who has a tendency to be streaky. From Dec. 31 to Jan. 13, Ladd recorded a season-long seven-game point streak to which he followed up with a three-game point streak a week later. Inversely, he has had stretches of three and four games this season where he has been held off the score sheet so for the Jets to get back in the win column, Ladd will have to have a strong offensive game.