TAMPA, Fla. – He’s not among the team’s leading scorers, and his plus-minus rating isn’t something to crow about, but Niklas Kronwall’s importance to the Red Wings has never meant more than it does now as they look to increase their postseason streak to 25 straight seasons.
The team’s leader along the blue line, Kronwall, who missed three games with a sprained right knee, returned to the lineup Saturday and contributed in a big way in the Wings’ 5-3 win at Florida.
“He’s been our leader since (Nicklas) Lidstrom stopped playing,” said Jonathan Ericsson, Kronwall’s regular defensive partner. “He’s our top two on the power play, he’s our best defenseman overall 5 on 5, and he’s a good penalty killer as well. He does everything and logs a lot of minutes, and most of all, important minutes.”
More than a week ago, the Wings held their collective breathe as the veteran defenseman winced in pain on the Joe Louis Arena ice during the second period against the New York Rangers. Though he’d only miss the next three games, the Wings were lucky the injury wasn’t worse.
It was initially thought Kronwall would miss as little as a week, but more than likely three weeks, meaning he would probably miss 11 of the final 14 games in the regular season. Then Saturday, the 35-year-old Kronwall returned to the lineup and produced a pair of assists – on the tying and go-ahead goals – against the Panthers.
“He’s an ultimate teammate, ultimate warrior, ultimate competitor,” Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. “When he’s in the lineup, he makes the Detroit Red Wings a better hockey team, both through his play and his leadership. So we’re glad he’s in the lineup here tonight. I think he gives us our best chance to win when he’s in the lineup.”
Tonight, Kronwall will play in his second game since returning from the knee injury when the Red Wings conclude a four-game road trip with a showdown against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena.
This season hasn’t been Kronwall’s best. His own toughest critic, Kronwall has repeatedly voiced his displeasure and frustration for his personal performance. He’s already missed 18 games, including 15 contests following arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in mid-January. He has three goals and 22 points with a minus-10 rating in 54 games.
“He expects a lot from himself and maybe too much,” Ericsson said. “But I think that’s a quality for him. He always wants to get better and I think that’s one of his strengths. I also think he goes about his approach differently. He’ll say you have to play better but he’s gonna prepare the same way every time.”
But Blashill sees Kronwall’s efforts and contributions a bit differently.
“I think Kronner through large parts of the year has been very good,” Blashill said. “He didn’t get off to a start he wanted to but I think he’s been good through large parts of the year. Obviously he had the surgery took him out and the injury but I thought he was great in that Rangers game before he got hurt. I have zero concern about Niklas Kronwall. I think he’s been at a real high level here the second part of the year with the exception of the injuries.”
Right Wing - DET
Goals: 0| Assists: 0 | Pts: 0
Shots: 9 | +/-: -1
For someone who hasn’t played the role for too long, Anthony Mantha
is fitting in nicely as a net-front presence since being called up to the Red Wings last week.
The 6-foot-5 Mantha could play a big role in causing puck-tracking problems for Lightning goalie Ben Bishop tonight.
“I think you just have to be in position in the right way,” Mantha said. “If you’re right in his face and he has to look around you it opens up holes, so it’s just a little placement. Even if he’s bigger or smaller you just have to read off him and be where you think he’s gonna look at.”
Mantha is the Wings’ best hope of getting in the line of sight of Tampa Bay’s 6-foot-7 goalie.
“He’s a huge body obviously. He’s strong,” said Luke Glendening, referring to Mantha. “He’s got a knack for goal scoring so I think if he hangs out there enough he’ll find a way to put some in.”
The net-front role is something new for Mantha, who usually played on the perimeter in the American Hockey League with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
“It’s just different placement, different timing,” Mantha said. “Obviously on every goal the puck needs go by you so you have a chance to tip it in or it can bounce off you or get a rebound. Just little details like that that I need to work on. Every day I need to do a few tips, or a few placements. It’s different but I do like it.”
PLAYOFF PICTURE: With 10 games remaining, the Red Wings have 83 points and hold the second wild card in the Eastern Conference. They are one point ahead of Philadelphia and just six points behind Atlantic Division-leading Florida (89 points).
A win tonight at Amalie Arena would pull Detroit within one point of third-place Boston, who is idle tonight, and two points of the second-place Lightning.