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March 23: A Look Ahead in Hockeytown

by Craig Peterson / Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings need to find away to get to Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop. The 6-foot-7 goalie has a lifetime 7-1-0 record with a 1.53 GAA and .943 save percentage against Detroit. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Detroit Red Wings)

DETROIT — The Red Wings will continue their home stand with games against Arizona, San Jose and a rematch with Tampa Bay before closing out the week in New York against the Islanders.

If one thing is clear after the last two contests, it’s that the Wings — and much of the league — are in playoff mode. A gutty 3-1 loss in Tampa Bay last Friday left little room for error and Sunday afternoon’s 2-1 overtime win against the St. Louis Blues was a chippy, physically punishing battle at Joe Louis Arena.

Carrying that mentality into match-ups with Western Conference foes during the week will be imperative, as both appear to be must-win games. The last-place Coyotes are ripe for the picking as they have lost seven straight games and haven’t scored more than two goals in a game since Feb 26.

The second-place team in the Pacific Division a month ago, the Sharks have taken a plunge out of the playoff picture now eight points behind Winnipeg for the second wild card in the Western Conference.

Two exposed teams spell important points for the Wings with just 11 games left on the schedule and crucial match-ups with the Lightning and Islanders at the end of the week.

A rematch of last Friday’s loss, the Wings will look to avoid a regular-season sweep, as the Lightning has won the previous three meetings. For a change in outcomes, Justin Abdelkader and a resting offense will have to rise to the challenge.

Abdelkader scored his 20th goal of the season in overtime on Sunday, doubling his previous career-high. Prior to that, he had an assist on linemate Erik Cole’s game-tying goal, producing Abdelkader’s seventh multi-point game of the season.

Coming away with anything less than a win at home against Tampa Bay would be damaging. The Wings must prove an ability to not just contend with, but also defeat the high-powered Lightning before April and a possible playoff series approaches.

A Sunday evening game on Long Island will be the Wings’ last trip to the Nassau Coliseum, as the Isles will move to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn next season.

The struggling Islanders still have a stronghold on a playoff spot with 92 points in the standings. Totaling 41 wins before March provided the Islanders a bit of a cushion, so a 3-5-2 record in the last 10 hasn’t been completely devastating. Facing two of the top three scoring teams in the NHL just two days apart, goalie Jimmy Howard and the Wings defense will could have to weather an offensive flurry in preparation for the postseason.

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

Smith

TUESDAY vs. ARIZONA (21-43-8): Losers of seven straight games going into Sunday’s match-ups, the Coyotes are a bleak 1-8-1 in their last 10 games. Eyeing the first overall draft pick in June, Arizona is just three points ahead of last-place Buffalo in the overall standings and dead last in the Western Conference. The Coyotes have allowed the second-most even-strength goals (161), second to only the Edmonton Oilers (173). Their struggles should come as no surprise, after moving veteran defenseman and the team’s leading scorer Keith Yandle to the Rangers at the trade deadline. In 72 games, 41 different players have appeared for the Coyotes this season, the most since the organization used 43 players in the 2005-06 season. A team on the downward spiral should be very vulnerable for the Wings at home.

PLAYER TO WATCH: If the Coyotes are to win, it will be because of goalie Mike Smith. Despite playing on one of the worst teams in the league, Smith is fully capable of stealing a game if given even the smallest offensive support. The 33-year-old has been hit with a loss in 14 of his last 15 starts but it’s not for lack of effort, as Smith has made 30-or-more saves in 10 of those contests. Against Pittsburgh on Saturday, Smith stopped 34-of-36 shots in a 3-1 loss after turning away 34-of-35 shots against Los Angeles in a 1-0 loss last Monday. The one thing that would impede the Wings in this contest is a hot goalie and Smith has the potential to play spoiler.

Thornton

THURSDAY vs. SAN JOSE (35-29-8): The Sharks will play 10 of their last 13 games on the road, including a trip to The Joe to wrap up the regular-season series with the Wings. Luke Glendening scored with 1:15 left in regulation to steal a 3-2 victory the last time these teams met. The Sharks come in just 5-5-0 in their last 10 games and have fallen out of the playoff race. While the team is struggling, a sixth-ranked power play (21.4 percent) still poses a threat having scored four power-play goals in the last five games. If the Wings jump out to an early lead, though, San Jose’s troubles could continue. When the opponent scores first, the Sharks have a bleak 10-21-5 record, so an early goal will be crucial.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Joe Thornton surpassed the 60-point mark for the ninth time in the previous 10 seasons, tallying two assists in the Sharks’ 4-1 win over Toronto on Thursday. The second assist gave Thornton a total of 900 in his career, becoming just the fourth person who has debuted since 1986 to reach 900 assists. The 35-year-old is still a tremendous playmaker late in his career, ranked fourth in the NHL with 48 assists in 68 games this season. With San Jose limping along in the playoff race, Thornton will have to be at the top of his game in order to give the Sharks an outside shot at the postseason.

Stamkos

SATURDAY vs. TAMPA BAY (44-21-7): The Lightning will look to become just the second team to sweep a regular-season series with the Wings — Anaheim also won both of its meetings against Detroit — winning each of the previous three meetings. Despite having the top-ranked offense in the league, it has been a strong defensive effort that has neutralized the Wings, being held to just two goals in the last two games. Goalie Ben Bishop made 30 saves last Friday and is 8-1-1 in his last 10 starts with a 24-5-1 record at home. Going on the road though, Bishop’s save percentage falls to .899 and his goals against average rises to 2.64, so the Wings could generate some offensive success at home like they did on Nov. 9, scoring three goals on 20 shots against Bishop.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Steven Stamkos scored an empty-net goal to clinch a 3-1 victory over the Wings on Friday, giving him four goals in the last four games. He now has 40 for the season — 12 in the last 16 games — and is second only to Alex Ovechkin in scoring. Stamkos can produce in bunches, as he did last Monday with his seventh three-point game of the season. Averaging 20:21 of ice time in the last three games against the Wings, Stamkos has four goals and has an impact on the game by just being on the ice, as his presence alone must be accounted for at all times.

Lee

SUNDAY at NEW YORK (44-25-4): In the midst of their worst month of the season, the Islanders have gone just 3-4-2 with eight points in the standings. Held to just one goal in four of their last five games, the Isles’ once potent offense has gone stagnant late in the season. With 44 wins, New York has still achieved tremendous success totaling the most wins since the 1983-84 season (50) when the Islanders appeared in their fifth consecutive Stanley Cup Finals. While the offense has struggled, its 28th ranked penalty kill has made tremendous strides of improvement. At 77.3 percent, the Isles PK has been much better in March killing off 22 straight penalties and going nine games without allowing a power-play goal.

PLAYER TO WATCH: In his first full season with the Islanders, forward Anders Lee ranks second amongst NHL rookies in goals (23) and fifth in points (38). A sixth-round draft pick in 2009, Lee has blossomed into a key source of production for an Islanders team that ranks third in the NHL in scoring. The 24-year-old had a career-best six-game point streak snapped on Mar. 13, against Ottawa but could jump back into form against the Wings late in the week. Lee assisted on Brock Nelson’s game-tying goal in Detroit on Dec. 19, and then added the game-winning goal in the Islanders’ 2-1 victory. With superstar John Tavares drawing plenty of attention look out for Lee, as he could strike again against a Wings team giving up 3.00 goals per game in the last five games.

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