DETROIT – March hasn’t exactly been kind to the Red Wings.
Entering the month, Detroit was in a pretty good spot, considering January and February were supposed to be its toughest to navigate.
On March 1, the Wings were in third place in the Atlantic Division – just like they are today. Just one difference: then they were battling for the overall lead in the Eastern Conference. Now they’re fighting to hold onto a playoff spot.
“March has been tough for us,” captain Henrik Zetterberg admitted. “April is usually a more fun month and we’re looking forward to it. This is the time of year when it’s fun to play. This is what you work so hard for in the summertime to be prepared for April and going into June. Now we’re here and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
The Wings began the new year on a laborious stretch, playing 17 of 23 games away from Joe Louis Arena. They did better than expected, posting a combined 15-6-2 mark in the first two months of the year while putting distance between themselves and Boston, Florida and Ottawa.
Since then, the Wings’ lead over those three rivals has shrunk, while Montreal and Tampa Bay have sailed away atop the division lead.
The Wings opened March with leads of 10, 14 and 17 points, respectively, over Boston, Florida and Ottawa.
In four weeks since, Detroit’s margin has dwindled to three, six and seven points over the Bruins, Senators and Panthers, who continue to scratch and claw their way up the standings ladder.
As the Wings prepare for perhaps the most pivotal week of the season – they host Ottawa tonight and Boston on Thursday – they know the stakes are high.
“It’s huge,” said center Riley Sheahan, who returns tonight after missing two games with an upper-body injury. “You can look at the standings and we’re obviously really close, so to get two points against a team that’s trying to make a run for the playoffs would be a lot of help for us. … It’s obviously important, especially tonight with the Senators close behind is. It’s definitely extremely important.”
Should the Senators win tonight at The Joe, and Boston beats Florida, the Wings would close the books on this month with a one-point lead over the Bruins and a four-point edge on Ottawa.
“I think over in Ottawa’s room they’ll be talking about how big of a game it is for them and in our locker room we’ll be talking about how big a game it is for us,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “You don’t worry about the rest of the league you worry about yourself. If you can get your team to play the way you expect your team to play you usually have a pretty good day.
“The reason you’re in sport is to play big games because you want the opportunity to excel. This is a big game for both franchises and a good opportunity for us so we’re excited to play.”
The Wings are 5-8-1 this month. It’s only their second losing month in three years, and the first since Dec. 2013.
Fortunately, April has been kinder to the Wings recently. They’re a combined 13-7-5 over the past three seasons, which Zetterberg expects will continue this season.
“It’s been like this the last couple of years going down the stretch,” he said. “The playoffs start a little bit earlier and that’s the fun part. You want to be in the playoffs and now we get a little taste of it before (it begins).”
MRAZEK IN NET: Petr Mrazek
Goalie - DET
GAA: 2.54 | Sv%: .912
gets his third consecutive start tonight when he goes between the pipes against the Senators, something he hasn’t done since he started 11 straight after Jimmy Howard
went down with a groin injury in January.
Mrazek has been streaky during his four stints in the Red Wings’ lineup this season. Sunday he allowed four goals on 11 shots against the New York Islanders, and was pulled early in the second period. It was the fourth time that the 23-year-old – who has two shutouts to his credit this season – hasn’t finished one of his past 12 starting assignment.
On a positive note, Mrazek has bounce back from every game he's been pulled, posting wins over Minnesota (Jan. 20), the Islanders (Jan. 31) and Pittsburgh (March 15).
Babcock said he’s giving Mrazek another shot. It’s the consideration Howard received last week when he was humbled by Arizona in an overtime loss.
“Howie had a tough one and I went right back with him,” Babcock said. “Pete’s done a good job for us, didn’t do a good job the other night against the Islanders, so I’m giving him the same opportunity. Obviously, one of these guys has to grab it. We’re in the winning business. This is a huge game for us tonight. It’s exciting to have the opportunity and we’re giving Pete the opportunity.”
Besides great starts over the past two weeks at Pittsburgh and against St. Louis and Tampa Bay – in which Mrazek and Howard allowed a combined two goals in three wins – the pair has given up 29 goals in six games, while the team faltered to a 0-5-1 mark.
“It’s great to have the opportunity and chance to bounce back right after Sunday,” Mrazek said. “It’s just two days after to have a chance. It’s a huge opportunity. I can’t wait for tonight.”
SPECIAL TEAMS DIP: A jewel in the first half of the Red Wings’ season, the penalty kill is partly to blame for the team’s overall struggles in March. The PK is 38-for-53 this month, working at a 71.7 percent efficiency rate, which is down considerably from their 80.6 percent season rate.
Detroit’s PK has allowed the sixth most goals (51) in the league. Only Winnipeg, Philadelphia, Columbus, Arizona and Buffalo have surrendered more.
Zetterberg said the penalty killers are no different than everyone else on the team. They just need to return to the basics to be successful in the final seven games of the season.
“We have a good structure when we do it right and, also maybe not focus so much on what the other teams are doing,” he said. “Just focus on what you are doing. You’re doing a lot of good things. Go back to the things that work and go from there.”
COLE UPDATE: Erik Cole
Left Wing - DET
Goals: 21 | Assists: 18 | Pts: 39
Shots: 122 | +/-: 2
will sit out his fourth straight game with an upper-body injury tonight. The veteran forward was injured when he collided awkwardly with Arizona forward Lauri Korpikoski last Tuesday.
The 36-year-old Cole has a history of head and neck injuries. He suffered a broken neck nine years ago. But he would not elaborate on his current injury.
“We’ve consulted with the doctors and all that stuff,” said Cole, who has three goals and six points in 11 games since his March 1 trade from Dallas.
“I went and got some therapy from a guy that I’m familiar with in Toronto that I’ve worked with in the past on the weekend,” Cole added. “So I’m feeling really good, especially getting worked on Saturday, Sunday and having a little skate here yesterday and again here today with the guys. Probably a few more practices and get all my ducks in a row and I’ll feel a little bit better about everything.”
Asked if he thought Thursday’s home game against the Bruins is possible, Cole said, “I wouldn’t rule it out, hopefully. It’s just tough because there aren’t enough practices to be had this time of year.
“I feel good, close to 100 percent. I was off the ice for almost all of last week, so I need to get back on the ice and be skating and make sure my legs are good.”