DETROIT – The Red Wings begin a grueling two-week sprint to the end of the regular season tonight when they host the Buffalo Sabres at Joe Louis Arena.
Also, tonight, the Wings start the first of three back-to-back sets of games. They’ll travel later this evening to Montreal, where they will play the Canadiens at Bell Centre on Tuesday.
The Red Wings are trying to extend their playoff streak to 25 straight years. Detroit owns the longest active playoff streak in North American pro sports.
Detroit and Philadelphia, who are engaged in a battle for the second wild card playoff spot, are the only Eastern Conference clubs with three sets of back-to-back games left on its schedules.
Following Saturday’s 7-2 loss to Pittsburgh, the Wings took Sunday off. They will also use this Wednesday as a rest day after facing the Sabres and Canadiens on back-to-back nights.
“In this league, especially, rest is a critical part of success, can certainly be as critical as practice,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. “We’ve tried to monitor our rest days versus our practice days. As I told them after the game, that game’s over, let’s move on to the next game, so hopefully our focus has been on Buffalo all day yesterday and today.”
With seven games left, it seems the Red Wings need to win at least six of the remaining games that would give them 97 points. However, the Wings have not won six of seven games during any stretch of this season.
“For us we want to play in the postseason and when we do that, obviously the streak continues,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “In here our main focus is not the streak. It’s to be able to play in the playoffs. That’s the message that we try to get through here.”
Since 1999-2000, when the league began awarding a point for an overtime/shootout loss, 11 teams that have finished with 92 to 96 points have not qualified for the postseason, including Boston (96), Los Angeles (95) and Dallas (92) last season.
Jimmy Howard will get his first start since he was pulled after allowing three goals on 16 shots in a 6-2 loss at Tampa Bay last Tuesday.
Goaltending has been an up-and-down proposition this season but Howard gives the Red Wings the best chance to beat the Sabres tonight. Since Feb. 18, Howard has a 3-2-1 record with a 2.80 goals-against average and .911 save percentage.
Meanwhile, Petr Mrazek has experienced a hard fall since mid-February. In that time, he has a 6-7-2 record with a 3.30 GAA, an .888 save percentage, and has been pulled four times.
Howard said he won’t change his approach to this start.
“Just play the way I know I’m capable of playing,” he said. “If I can do that,
then I just give the guys a chance.
“We’ve got to focus on ourselves and going out there and putting forth a 60-minute effort. It’s down to do or die like it has been for the last month. We’ve got to find a way to win games here.”
Alexey Marchenko, who has been a healthy scratch for the past four games, will play tonight and be paired with defenseman Niklas Kronwall. To make room in the lineup, Brendan Smith will not play. He had played in nine straight games.
Dylan Larkin became the highest scoring rookie in Red Wings history when he scored his 22nd goal of the season. His power-play goal at 18:32 of the first period ties him with Zetterberg, also collected 22 goals and 44 points in his freshman campaign in 2002-03.
Larkin had a glorious scoring chance on a near breakaway but Josh Gorges got back in time to distract the Wings’ rookie, preventing him from getting a quality shot on Sabres goalie Chad Johnson.
Seconds later, the Wings went on the power play when Nicolas Deslauriers was called for hitting Marchenko with an elbow along the half wall. The Wings managed to get one shot on goal during the man advantage but not much else.
Detroit had three power play chances in the period; Buffalo had one opportunity when Brad Richards went to the box for hooking.
With 7:13 left in the period, Karen Newman led the sold out crowd in a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ to Red Wings legend Gordie Howe, who will turn 88 years old on Thursday.
The Wings finished with five shots during 3:03 of power play time. Larkin is now tied for 12th with Zetterberg and Dallas Drake (1992-93) in rookie scoring in franchise history.
DETROIT 1, BUFFALO 0
SCORING: 1. DET, Larkin PPG (Zetterberg, Kronwall), 18:32.
PENALTIES: 1. BUF, Deslauriers (elbowing), 8:21; 2. BUF, Larsson, (hooking), 12:47; 3. DET, Richards (hooking), 13:27; 4, BUF, Gorges (interference), 18:09.
SHOTS: Detroit 12, Buffalo 4.
It might have been the prettiest goal of his NHL career. A coast-to-coast effort by Riley Sheahan spotted the Red Wings a two-goal lead midway through the second period.
Sheahan’s 12th goal of the season was his fifth in his past 20 games, and third in the three games. He scored twice in Detroit’s 4-3 win over Montreal last Thursday.
The Wings came close to going up 3-0 lead in the waning seconds of the period, but Johnson managed to cover up a loose puck before Tomas Tatar could get a stick on it.
The Sabres’ nine shots is the lowest total allowed by the Red Wings through two periods of any game this season.
DETROIT 2, BUFFALO 0
SCORING: 1. DET, Sheahan (unassisted), 9:05.
PENALTIES: 1. DET, Ericsson (holding), 0:30; 2. BUF, Foligno (cross-checking), 15:44.
SHOTS: Detroit 9 (21), Buffalo 5 (9).
Howard wasn’t challenged much but he certainly seems to have the Sabres’ number throughout his career. With Monday’s win, Howard now has a 7-0-1 record against Buffalo. Howard has allowed just 13 goals in eight career starts against the Sabres.
However, Buffalo made Howard earn his win late in the game. The Sabres scored consecutive goals just 62 seconds apart to make the Wings sweat.
Luke Glendening capped the Wings’ scoring with an empty-net goal at 17 minutes to put Detroit up 3-0. But 10 seconds later, the Sabres punched one passed Howard when Zemgus Girgensons scored his sixth goal of the season, and then Sam Reinhart scored on a blast from the half wall with 1:49 remaining in regulation.
With the Flyers’ overtime win over Winnipeg, the Red Wings remain on the outside of the playoff race by virtue of having played one more game than Philadelphia. The Wings and Flyers are tied with 87 points, but Detroit has played 76 games to Philadelphia’s 75.
DETROIT 3, BUFFALO 2
SCORING: 1. DET, Glendening EN (Zetterberg), 17:00; 2. BUF, Girgensons (Gionta, Nelson), 17:10; 3. BUF, Reinhart (Nelson, O’Reilly), 18:12.
PENALTIES: 1. BUF, McCabe (interference), 6:15; 2. DET, Abdelkader (hooking), 11:31.
SHOTS: Detroit 8 (29), Buffalo 11 (20).