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Jan. 26: A Look Ahead in Hockeytown

by Craig Peterson / Detroit Red Wings
Petr Mrazek, who has a 9-3-1 record this season, is 0-3-0 lifetime against the Lightning and Islanders. He's not faced the Panthers. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Detroit Red Wings)

DETROIT – Well rested with nice tans, the Red Wings return to action following the five-day All-Star break with an arduous slate of games this week.

Beginning with a two-game trip to the Sunshine State, the Wings have a combined record of 0-2-2 in four games against this week’s opponents – Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders – this season.

This stretch will be different.

While it presents a wealth of challenges as the Panthers are on the cusp of a playoff berth and the Islanders and Lightning are frontrunners in their respective Eastern Conference divisions, the Wings have proven themselves to be legitimate contenders in the NHL, tied for fourth with 63 points.

Both Tampa Bay (64 points) and the Islanders (63 points) have produced impressive resumes through the season’s first half. Led by center Steven Stamkos, the Lightning are first in the league with 154 goals and the Islanders aren’t far behind with 145 goals.

Before the top teams in the Eastern Conference square off, though, the Wings must first deal with the Panthers. With 50 points in the standings, Florida are seven points outside of the playoffs and because of that, will be a dangerous and desperate team to face.

Detroit is capable of putting the puck in the net, scoring 19 goals in its past four games. The Wings are No. 10 in the league averaging 2.92 goals per game, and they are one of the best defensive teams, surrendering the seventh fewest goals – 2.38 per game.

Detroit’s strong defensive effort thus far can be credited to the stellar play of goalie Jimmy Howard who has posted an impressive 2.11 goals against average and .920 save percentage through 41 games. However, Howard has been out with a groin injury and a return date that is uncertain.

In the meantime, Petr Mrazek is the go-to guy during this important stretch. The 22-year-old Czech has proved his ability against playoff-caliber opponents defeating St. Louis and Nashville in consecutive games last week.

The Wings have lost two previous meetings against the Panthers this season, both at Joe Louis Arena in December. Three of the Wings’ five goals in those games came on the power play and the team could lean heavily on their special teams again this week. With the league’s best power-play efficiency at home, the Wings conversion rate on the road drops slightly but has scored a goal on the man advantage in three of the past five road games.

With that, here’s a look ahead to this week in Hockeytown:

Roberto Luongo

TUESDAY at FLORIDA (20-14-10): The Panthers will hope that the All-Star break brings a change of luck as the team has lost four straight games. Defenseman Aaron Ekblad and goalie Roberto Luongo represented Florida at this weekend’s festivities. In the midst of a five-game home stand, the Panthers have struggled losing their last five home games and managing just two points in the standings. Florida is still in contention though, and with just one playoff appearance in the last five seasons the Panthers are motivated to return. With an eye on the postseason, a strong second half of the season is a must, and it starts with the Wings at home.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Appearing in 36 of the team’s 44 games, Luongo is the reason for much of the Panthers’ success this season. With a 2.32 goals against average and .923 save percentage, the 35-year-old has been the backbone of a rebuilding process in Florida and keeps the team in close games. He is 10 career wins shy of the 400-mark and should get plenty of chances to reach that milestone if the Panthers ride him to a late playoff push.

Steven Stamkos

THURSDAY at TAMPA BAY (30-14-4): Winners of three in a row, the Lightning will play the Wings for the second of three schedule meetings this season and the first at Amalie Arena. The Lightning is 19-4-1 at home this season and has won their last eight games in Tampa. With three players surpassing the 40-point mark already, the NHL’s top offensive team is one of three clubs that has yet to be shut out this season. With special teams that rank in the middle of the road — the power play ranked 16th and penalty kill ranked 14th — Tampa Bay doesn’t necessarily rely on special teams to win games. Playing 5-on-5, the Lightning has scored 110 of their 154 goals at even strength.

PLAYER TO WATCH: With points in five of the last six including five goals, Stamkos will return after the third appearance in the All-Star Game in his young career. The 24-year-old superstar scored two goals in the team’s 4-3 overtime win against the Wings in November, one of which came on the power play. Stamkos is fourth in the NHL with 26 goals and second on the team with 45 points behind Tyler Johnson. Since the beginning of the 2009-10 season, no player in the NHL has scored more goals than Stamkos with 235. Alex Ovechkin is the next closest with 228.

John Tavares

SATURDAY vs. NEW YORK (31-14-1): The Islanders’ trip to Joe Louis Arena will be the first road game in two weeks for the Metropolitan Division leader. Going 5-1-0 in the last six games, the Isles have scored three or more goals in six straight games and out-shot the opponent in 16 of the last 17 games. One of those contests was their 2-1 win over the Wings on Dec. 19. New York out-shot Detroit 32-18 and held them to just one goal, a bit of an anomaly for an Islanders team that gives up 2.78 goals per game, ranking in the bottom third of the league. The team’s Achilles heel is its penalty kill. Despite being tied for the most wins in the NHL, the Islanders’ PK unit ranks 29th out of 30 teams with a 74.4 percent efficiency.

PLAYER TO WATCH: On a three-game point streak, John Tavares’ 45 points — tied with Stamkos — was enough to earn him All-Star honors for the second time in his career. With 21 goals through 46 games, Tavares has eclipsed the 20-goal mark for a sixth consecutive season and surpassed 350 career points. The Mississauga, Ont., native leads the Islanders forwards in time on ice, averaging 20:22 per game and has a team-high 19 power-play points. The 24-year-old was held off the score sheet the last time he faced the Wings but averages nearly a point per game on the road including 13 goals and 25 points in 26 away games.

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