COLUMBUS, Ohio – If there were ever a must-win game … it’s tonight.
The Red Wings woke up this morning to find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture looking in after Philadelphia went to Chicago and beat the Blackhawks 3-2 Wednesday.
The win moves the Flyers into the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference standings by one point over the Red Wings, who take on the Blue Jackets tonight at Nationwide Arena.
“We’ve been there before on the outside looking in,” said Jimmy Howard, who will start tonight. “We’ve found a way to get in (in the past), so, we’ve just got to continue coming together and going out there and performing for each other.”
Originally, Petr Mrazek was to face the Blue Jackets, but the goalie was feeling sick and did not participate in Thursday’s morning skate. The Red Wings had to recall Grand Rapids goalie Jared Coreau on an emergency basis to backup Howard, whose last start came a week ago in 5-3 loss to the Blue Jackets.
Coreau is expected to arrive in Columbus later this afternoon as he’s coming from Dallas, where the Griffins began a 12-day road trip on Wednesday.
With their playoff hopes hanging in the balance, tonight’s game – in a building that hasn’t been very kind in recent years to the Wings – is extremely important if they are to reach the postseason for a 25th consecutive season.
“They’ve been crucial now for a while,” Howard said of the games. “We’ve been down a little bit with our starts as of late but we have to find a way to start on time. That’s starting here tonight (and) from here on out.”
Scoring has been an issue all season for the Wings, however, they have gone the past five games, and 11 of the last 14, without scoring in the first period.
“All you can do is go out and play great hockey,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “That’s all you can do. Do we want to get the first goal? Absolutely. Would we like to get the second goal? Absolutely. But what you need to do is from the drop of the puck for 60 straight minutes is play great hockey.”
The Wings are 14-16-9 when not scoring in the first period this season. But they’re 19-9-3 when they have scored in the opening period.
“It’s tough. It’s a tough league to come back against teams,” Justin Abdelkader said. “I think you see team’s records when they’re leading after the first, even the second period, it’s really good. So you try to get the lead, or at least try to play a strong game and a strong start to the game.
“Scoring is big but not allowing teams to get up a couple of goals on you is also big.”
Still, with only a dozen games to go, defenseman Mike Green believes the Wings will get the job done.
“I think we’re confident in the sense that we know we can do this,” he said. “Obviously it starts tonight with Columbus. We have to make sure we take the energy out of their building here in the first period and get off to a good start. But we have the composure and the confidence in the dressing room to get it done.”
BLUE JACKET BATTLE: Though the Blue Jackets are out of playoff contention, to Wings can still expect a physical challenge against a John Tortorella coached team.
Columbus is ninth in the league in hits and eighth in blocked shots, and its penalty kill has stepped up recently, successfully killing 36 of 41 oppsoing power play chances in the last 12 games.
“Obviously we know they’re gonna be physical,” Abdelkader said. “I think we can use that against them, obviously getting pucks behind them, supporting each other, and getting our D involved. Each and every one of us can be physical. Maybe our physical’s a different physical than that. Obviously, they’re gonna run around and maybe try and get the bigger hits, but with us, I think, just being strong on your stick, finishing a check when you can, and playing hard.”
MANTHA’S IMMEDIATE FUTURE: Rookie Anthony Mantha said he expects to stay with the Wings as long as he continues to do the things that got him his call up.
The 21-year-old made his NHL debut Tuesday in Philadelphia.
“Well, I talked to Blash quite a few times,” Mantha said. “He told that if I kept playing the way I was it could be for the rest of the season. But it’s not for sure yet, so I just need to prove to them that they need to keep me, and that’s how I need to focus and play my game.”
Mantha said his nerves today were far better than they were Tuesday for his first game.
“Yeah, obviously less pressure,” he said. “I know what the schedule’s gonna be like today, and it’s a little bit different than down in Grand Rapids. So for me it’s just getting used to it one time and then the routine starts up after that.”
KRONWALL SKATES: For the first time since suffering a sprained knee last Saturday against the New York Rangers, defenseman Niklas Kronwall was back on the ice.
“Pretty good. Hopefully getting there,” Kronwall told reporters. “It was another good day. Hopefully another good one tomorrow and we’ll go from there.”
Asked if he had any limitations, Kronwall only said, “It feels pretty good.”
The original diagnosis was that Kronwall would miss 1-3 weeks. Being back on the ice is a good sign, but he hesitated to guess when he may return to the lineup.
“He won’t play tonight but I thought he skated good today,” Blashill said. “We’ll continue to evaluate but it’s day by day. I know he’s really pushing to get back as soon as possible. He’s a heck of a warrior so we’ll see.”
NOTES: Detroit has had 41 games decided by one goal – including each of its last four games – edging the Minnesota Wild for most in the league. The Red Wings have a 23-7-11 record in those games.