DETROIT – For the first time in a very long time, the Toronto Maple Leafs come to town not as hunters but as the hunted.
The Leafs enter this week with 80 points, which is seven more than the Red Wings, who have two games in hand over Toronto. While the Red Wings are looking to stretch their postseason run to 23 consecutive years, the Leafs are trying to solidify a second straight playoff appearance for the first time in a decade.
Tuesday’s game is the third meeting of the season for the Original Six rivals turned new Atlantic Division combatants. The two teams will faceoff for the last time of the regular season in 12 days from now at the Air Canada Centre.
“Our focus is right now and we’ve been playing some good hockey,” Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. “We feel good about the team that we have and obviously we feel we could have played a little bit better in Washington. We didn’t do enough to get points. It’s disappointing but today is a new day and tomorrow is a big game for our team.”
The Wings and Leafs spilt their two previous contests this season with each club winning in a shootout, including the Leafs’ victory in an outdoor game at Michigan Stadium that may have wakened a rivalry that has been dormant for years.
“I think them moving to the East with the Winter Classic, playing them more with the history of the organizations just brings even more to the rivalry,” Phaneuf said. “You look at the schedule, the way it’s set up, and we’re playing them at this time of the year with points being so big for both teams it’s done a lot for the rivalry with them coming to the Eastern Conference.”
The Leafs are wrapping up a five-game road trip Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena that began eight days ago in southern California. And while it hasn’t gone completely as planned, Toronto has claimed four points with regulation wins at Anaheim and Los Angeles.
“We’re ending a road trip that we played some pretty solid hockey on over a long period of time,” Phaneuf said. “When you go on road trips, especially ones that are over a week-long there’s a lot of hockey and a lot of travel and I feel that we’ve been doing a lot of good things over the majority of the trip.”
With 15 games remaining in the regular season, the Red Wings know the importance of capitalizing on three upcoming home games in the next six days beginning Tuesday against the Maple Leafs. Detroit will host Pittsburgh on Thursday before playing a home-and-home against the Minnesota Wild this weekend.
“I think everybody realizes this,” forward Tomas Tatar said. “We know there’s lots of teams picking up points. It doesn’t really matter how the other teams look, we know what we have to do, how many points we need to pick (up) to get in. The homes games are obviously an advantage, we know we have to win them.”
But knowing and doing are two different things for the Red Wings, who continue to rack up injuries with every game. The latest injury occurred Sunday in Chicago as Justin Abdelkader (lower-body) was unable to play the final six minutes of the game. Because is status for Tuesday is unclear, the Red Wings have recalled Landon Ferraro from Grand Rapids on an emergency basis.
The Red Wings forward joins a list that already includes Henrik Zetterberg (back surgery), who is out for the rest of the season, and Pavel Datsyuk (knee) who will be re-evaluated in the next week to 10 days.
“They’re missing some key guys but I think they’re a pretty deep organization and they always seem to find guys who come out of nowhere, and they’re top players,” Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk said. “We know it’s going to be a tough game, a hard-fought game, and we’re going to have to be ready to go.”
Center Stephen Weiss (sports hernia), Darren Helm (concussion) and forward Todd Bertuzzi (lower body) are day-to-day. Also missing from the Red Wings’ lineup are backup goalie Jonas Gustavsson (groin), center Joakim Andersson (broken foot), and forwards Daniel Cleary (knee) and Mikael Samuelsson (shoulder).
Monday was a day off for the Red Wings, though Gustavsson, Cleary and Weiss skated on their own at The Joe.
Meanwhile, it’s expected that James Reimer will start for the third time on this trip after Jonathan Bernier went down with a lower-body injury against his former team in L.A. It’s been reported that he has a low-grade groin strain that will keep him out of Tuesday’s game.
“As a team we focus on what we want to do and play the system that we want to play,” Phaneuf said. “Personnel on their side, they have a good team, they’ve had a good team for a lot of years and obviously when they have guys out they’ll have guys who come in and work just as hard for their team. So it’s not about personnel it’s about how we have to play and I’m sure they’re going to say the same thing.”
Reimer has experienced an up-and-down season. He stopped all 31 shots and was named the first star in the 3-2 win over the Kings, but Sunday he surrendered three goals – albeit two power-play tallies – in the first 8 ½ minutes of a 4-2 loss at Washington.
“Yesterday again, we didn’t start very well in front of (Reimer) against guys who can put the puck in the net,” Phaneuf said. “But he’s done a good job for us and we’re very confident in the way he plays and the way he plays for us.
“I think Reims has been solid for us all year whenever he’s been in net. Both of our goalies have been solid and given us a chance to win. They’re a big reason that we’ve had success this year.”
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose