SUNRISE, Fla. – Eleven.
That’s the number of regular-season games remaining for the Red Wings, who likely won’t know their playoff fate before the final weekend.
It’s that urgency that perhaps is driving Niklas Kronwall to return to the lineup as quick as possible, meaning, he could be back as soon as Saturday when the Red Wings faceoff against the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center.
“Everything felt good today in practice. Hopefully tomorrow morning it’ll be good again and go from there,” said Kronwall, who sprained his right knee a week ago against the New York Rangers.
The Wings definitely miss Kronwall, their leader along the blue line, especially on the first power play unit.
Coach Jeff Blashill called Kronwall a game-time decision, though he added, “I’m not sure, I have to talk to him. He was going to test it more so we’ll see how he feels tomorrow and continue to evaluate him.”
Still, Kronwall is ahead of schedule for the backend of the 1-3 week timeframe that he was expected to miss. He missed 15 games after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in mid-January.
“I know they said that (1-3 weeks) but we didn’t really talk too much of a timetable,” Kronwall said. “It was more about just getting treatments in and getting the job done and then we’ll see how soon I can get back. It’s responded well so far and hopefully tomorrow is another good day and I’ll be good to go.”
Participating in the second practice since wrenching his knee in the second period of last Saturday’s home game against the Rangers, Kronwall shared time with Alexey Marchenko Friday. Chances are if Kronwall plays Saturday then Marchenko would be a healthy scratch against the Panthers.
As for the standings – the Red Wings currently hold on to the second wild card, one point ahead of Philadelphia – Kronwall says now is about taking things one game at a time.
“We can’t look further than the next game, really,” he said. “All the focus has to be on the next game. More desperation, throw more pucks to the net. It’s things you keep talking about but they’re getting more and more important down the road. … Obviously winning the net-front battle is going to be one area that’s going to be key going forward. That’s something we got to keep working on.”
FAMILIAR FACES: For the first time since his trade to the Panthers last month, the Red Wings will have the opportunity to catch up with Jakub Kindl on Saturday night.
The Red Wings’ first-round draft pick in 2005, Kindl is a solid puck-moving defenseman, but his time in Detroit was expendable with the number of young prospects pushing for roles.
“It’ll be fun to play against them tomorrow night,” goalie Jimmy Howard said. “He was awesome here. The hand that he was dealt, he always came to the rink with a positive attitude and worked his rear end off. It’s great to see a guy like that get an opportunity.”
Though he never played in more than five straight games, Kindl never complained to the media about his sporadic use by the coaches. Now he’s getting a chance, playing on the third pairing with an assist and a plus-2 rating in eight straight games since the trade.
“I’m one of his good friends,” Justin Abdelkader said. “I’m happy for his opportunity here; he’s been playing so it’s been good.”
Jiri Hudler is another familiar face to some in the Wings’ dressing room. He played seven seasons with the Wings before leaving for Calgary as a free agent following the 2011-12 season. There are only six players on the current roster – Kronwall, Ericsson, Howard, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Darren Helm – who played more than 20 games with Hudler in Detroit.
The 32-year-old Hudler has three goals and four points in eight games with the Panthers since his trade from the Flames prior to the deadline.
DANGEROUS CATS: Once again, limiting turnovers will be key for the Red Wings when they meet Atlantic Division-leading Florida on Saturday.
“They’re a dangerous team,” Howard said. “They’re very opportunistic if you’re going to turn the puck over. We’re going to have to limit the turnovers to the best of our abilities. If you don’t have a play just off the glass and out, we just have to be smart.”
Coming out strong, as they did in Thursday’s 3-1 win at Columbus, will be imperative for the Red Wings, who can’t afford to suffer anymore letdowns.
“Points are at a premium,” Howard said. “This is a team that’s ahead of us in the standings so we have a chance to make up some ground. It’s going to take another great effort by all 20 of us tomorrow night. Just play boring hockey on the road here.”
Staying out of the penalty box will also support the Wings’ cause.
“They’re a team that really skates well, has some good offensive talent,” Abdelkader said. “They made a few moves since the last time we played them. They have (Teddy) Purcell and Kindl now. They’re an offensive team so we don’t want to give them any extra opportunities and we want to get through the neutral zone and limit our turnovers.”
MANTHA’S OK: Anthony Mantha went hard into the goal post behind Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky Thursday night. The Red Wings’ rookie picked up steam to get around a Blue Jackets’ defenseman but lost a skate edge before tumbling to the ice and dislodging the net.
“It didn’t feel good that’s for sure,” Mantha said. “I tried bringing it to the net and sometimes you lose an edge and you fall. That’s what happened so I’m alright today though. So it’s good news.”
Mantha went to the Wings’ dressing room but returned to the ice for the start of the second period.
“I had a hard time breathing but it came back after a few minutes,” he said. “I was just controlling my breath and I was back on the bench for the like two shifts later. So it’s all good.”
GOALIE GO-ROUND: Petr Mrazek (illness) did not skate at Friday’s practice, and likely won’t be available to backup Saturday for Howard, who will start back-to-back games for the first time since the second week of the season.
Rookie Jared Coreau made the trip from Columbus to Ft. Lauderdale with the Red Wings. He practiced Friday and will likely backup Howard for the second straight game on Saturday.