DETROIT — Two home games in the middle of the week with Ottawa and Boston will precede back-to-back games over the weekend when the team travels to Minnesota before returning for a Sunday contest against Washington.
With four games in six days, each of the Wings’ opponents this week are very much on the playoff bubble, as every NHL team seems to be battling for their playoff lives.
The Senators (86 points), Bruins (87) and Capitals (92) make up the wild card race in the Eastern Conference standings. The Wild has 95 points — just one ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks — for third-place in the Central Division, and even the slightest slip-up could drop Minnesota into the thick of the wild card in the Western Conference.
With so much movement occurring in the standings and potential scenarios playing out in the final weeks of the regular season, forward Gustav Nyquist said focusing on internal issues would help put all other concerns to rest.
“I think we’re just trying to focus on our play and playing the way we want,” Nyquist said. “We can’t be worried about the other teams too much. All teams we’re gonna face are gonna be good teams that are playing for their playoff lives. We’re getting ready for the playoffs down the stretch here, so it’s just a nice win to feel good about ourselves.”
Turnovers and taking care of the puck have become a concern, as costly mistakes have found their way into the back of the Wings’ net. Allowing five-or-more goals in three of the last four outings, unforced errors and mental lapses have resulted in odd-man rushes and unfortunate circumstances in the defensive zone.
Forward Justin Abdelkader — one constant during the peaks and valleys of the last two weeks — has 10 goals and 12 points in the last 14 games. In the final two weeks, simplifying the game with smart decision-making and a commitment in the defensive zone will be imperative as Abdelkader and the Wings look to get back on track before the postseason.
“I think any time you play a good team, you’ve gotta make good decisions,” Abdelkader said. “Otherwise, the puck is gonna end up in your net. … I thought we did a lot of good things (this weekend) and hopefully we can carry it over these last seven games.”
Goals will come at a premium, as all four of this week’s opponents rank in the top-half of the league in goals against. However, the Wings come in having scored four goals in four straight games and with the offense back on track, Abdelkader’s scoring momentum could propel the team through difficult match-ups.
Playing four desperate teams still in the thick of the playoff race, the Wings can expect to get each opponent’s best shot with the season hanging in the balance. That desperation can be dangerous to play against, but with the Wings’ struggles in the last 10 games and the threat of dropping in the standings, maybe that despair will rub off as they could find themselves playing for their playoff lives as well.
With that, here’s a look ahead to this week in Hockeytown:
TUESDAY vs. OTTAWA (37-26-12): March has been the best month of the season by far for the Senators, totaling 22 points with a 10-3-2 record. Trailing the Boston Bruins by 15 points in the standings on Feb. 10, Ottawa had closed the gap to just one point for the final wild card spot prior to Sunday, with a game in hand. Rookie goalie Andrew Hammond had a historic start to his career, filling in for Craig Anderson and going 14-1-1 in his first 16 starts. Hammond suffered a lower-body injury early last week and Anderson is still nursing a hand injury that he suffered on Jan. 21, so while the goaltending had been strong over the last several weeks, a string of injuries could cause the Sens some problems in the final two weeks of the regular season.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Erik Karlsson is one of just two NHL defensemen to lead his team in points (joined by Arizona’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson) with just seven games remaining. The 24-year-old quarterbacks a Senators power play that has recorded a goal on the man advantage in two of the last three contests against the Wings, as Karlsson’s 27 power-play points is tied for eighth in the league. Only the Kings’ Drew Doughty and the Wild’s Ryan Suter have logged more time on ice than the Sens’ Karlsson, who averages 27:05 per game. One of the best defensemen in the game, Karlsson can play in all facets and is dangerous at both ends of the ice.
THURSDAY vs. BOSTON (38-25-13): The Bruins snapped a six-game losing streak on Saturday with a 4-2 win over the New York Rangers. Their absence in the win column wasn’t for lack of effort, as they had out-shot their opponent in four of those six contests including a 45-shot barrage in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres. A strong team at home, Boston is just 16-15-6 in away games and will have to play five of its last seven games on the road, including Thursday’s trip to Joe Louis Arena. With a 22.7 percent efficiency at home, the power play’s success rate drops significantly on the road converting just 14.6 percent of its opportunities in away games. Playing the regular-season series finale from the comforts of home should play into the Wings’ favor.
PLAYER TO WATCH: With 10 more points than Loui Eriksson, center Patrice Bergeron leads the team in scoring for the first time since the 2009-10 season. Bergeron has two goals and five points in the last six games and has had at least a point in each of his previous three games against the Wings. Where he is most dangerous, though, is the faceoff circle. Bergeron’s impressive 60.4 percent faceoff winning percentage is the highest in the NHL and winning 31 draws on Feb. 24 against Vancouver is the highest of any player in a single game this season. Opening play with possession of the puck is vital and Bergeron’s ability in the circle could play a crucial role in the flow of the game.
SATURDAY at MINNESOTA (44-25-7): Third place in the Central Division before Sunday’s match-ups, the Wild are still very much in the thick of the wild card race, as they lead the Chicago Blackhawks by just one point. Minnesota has been the best team in the league since the All-Star break totaling 47 points since Jan. 15, and has posted 10 wins in back-to-back months. A strong penalty kill effort has fueled the Wild at 86.9 percent, they claim the league’s top PK unit. In the last nine games, Minnesota has killed off 22-of-24 penalties and has only allowed five power-play goals total in the second-half of the season. Goalie Devan Dubnyk has started in all 33 games since being acquired by the Wild on Jan. 14, going 25-6-2 during his time in Minnesota.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Zach Parise scored his 30th goal of the season in a 4-2 win over the Calgary Flames on Friday. With that, Parise became the only active American player to have six 30-goal seasons since the 2005-06 season. He is the fourth different player in Wild history to reach the scoring plateau, joining Marion Gaborik, Brian Rolston and Jason Pominville. With five goals and 12 points in the last 11 games, Parise leads the Wild in goals (30), points (58), power-play goals (nine) and shots (238). The 30-year-old has not had a negative rating in 15 consecutive games, totaling a plus-10 rating in that span.
SUNDAY vs. WASHINGTON (41-25-10): With two of the NHL’s top five leaders in points as well as a top 10 goalie in goals against and save percentage, the Capitals would appear to be a tough out on the surface. However, they are just 5-5-0 in their last 10 outings and only two of the Capitals’ seven wins in March prior to Sunday’s match-ups were against teams currently claiming a playoff spot. Washington has the league’s best power play at 24.4 percent, with Alex Ovechkin accounting for 21 of the team’s 54 goals on the man advantage. The league’s leading scorer has run hot and cold all season long and with just two goals in his last seven games, Ovechkin has slowed down this month.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Ovechkin’s 47 goals may lead the NHL, but strong playmaking ability from center Nicklas Backstrom has set up many of those opportunities. Backstrom has earned an assist on 30 of Ovechkin’s goals and leads the NHL in assists (54) and power-play assists (27). Backstrom and Ovechkin have combined to register the most goals (65) and points (145) by any teammates in the league this season. Backstrom is also the Caps’ best faceoff man, winning 53.7 percent of his draws and logging 20:30 ice time per game. Because of his all-around ability and versatility, Backstrom can dictate the outcome of a game through a variety of skills.