SUNRISE, Fla. – Mike Babcock was asked what the Red Wings had to do to maintain the momentum that they seemingly gained from blitzing the Pittsburgh Penguins for five goals last Sunday.
“Just keep going,” declared the Wings’ coach. “Just keep getting better, get dialed in.”
The Wings started the final push toward their 24th consecutive playoff appearance by opening a 14-game stretch in 24 days to conclude the regular season Thursday night.
It wasn’t the start, or finish they were looking for against the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center.
“I didn’t like us in the first few minutes,” coach Mike Babcock said. “After that I thought we skated real good. We had lots of opportunities. We hit the post four times. We didn’t score.”
Meanwhile, the Panthers – who are still fighting to get into the playoffs – scored three straight times to hand the Red Wings their fifth loss this month.
The 3-1 loss is Detroit’s second all-time loss in regulation to the Panthers in Florida. The first came Feb. 8, 1996, when Detroit native John Vanbiesbrouck made 29 saves, also in a 3-1 win over the Wings.
The Wings are now off the Tampa Bay where they will face the Lightning Friday night in a possible first-round matchup in the playoffs. Tampa Bay is currently in second place in the Atlantic with 93 points – six ahead of Detroit.
“We took a step forward against Pittsburgh and I think this was a decent game,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “I don’t think we played that bad. I think we’ve just got to come back strong tomorrow. It’s a big game against Tampa, so let’s get two points.”
Starting his second consecutive game, rookie goalie Petr Mrazek was sharp from the get go thwarting the first great scoring chance of the game when Florida forward Brad Boyes skated in on a breakaway just 69 seconds after the opening faceoff. Mrazek came up with a huge save while not allowing a rebound by immediately covering up the puck in the crease.
The game remained scoreless until Jaromir Jagr solved Mrazek for the second time this season. The 43-year-old sniper cranked a shot from the left circle that beat Mrazek on his glove side at 10:55 of the second period.
Jagr, who was a part of a February trade, scored on Mrazek in the Wings’ 5-4 shootout win at New Jersey on Nov. 28.
Nearly four minutes after Jagr’s 13th goal of the season, the future hall of famer battled for a rebound in front that trickled behind Mrazek. Jagr managed to nudge the puck further into the crease, but Brandon Pirri tipped the fluttering puck before it crossed the goal line. The goal at 14:42 gave the Panthers a 2-0 lead.
The Panthers jumped to a three-goal lead early in the third period when Scottie Upshaw moved into the Wings’ zone on a 2 on 1 and fired a shot top shelf over Mrazek’s left-catching glove.
Erik Cole sliced the deficit to 3-1 with his second goal since joining the Red Wings at the trade deadline. Cole has now reached the 20-goal milestone for the sixth time in his career, the first since 2011-12 when he played for the Montreal Canadiens.
“Honestly, it’s nice to contribute, but when it’s in losses it isn’t that great,” Cole said. “We need to win games. In the playoffs it’s a matter of just winning hockey games. You play lots of different roles through the course of a series and certainly during a run. We all need to elevate out game and hold each other a little more accountable to what we’re trying to do and execute better and we’ll be fine.”
The Wings’ power play entered Thursday’s game having scored in a season-high nine straight games. But the Panthers’ penalty killers, who were on a 23-for-25 streak, stopped both of Detroit’s man advantages, including one late in the third period.
“I think we had a couple calls that went against us,” Cole said. “They were penalties but maybe a couple things could have gone our way in that sense. We did do some good things but did some not so great things. We need to execute better. I thought a little bit of our power play was sloppy so there’s things we can do better and we need to.”