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Wings feel the heat as other teams chase

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said Thursday morning that Jimmy Howard and the rest of the team has to play better in the weeks leading up to the Stanley Cup playoffs. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Detroit Red Wings)

DETROIT – As the regular season begins to wind down, the Red Wings have been doing a lot of scoreboard watching as Ottawa and Boston continue to move up the Atlantic Division standings.

Someone who gets a daily earful is Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith, whose brother, Reilly, is a Bruins forward. Ottawa (85 points) is five points behind Detroit for third place in the division. Boston (84) is six points back.

“I hear them a lot from my little brother. He’s always talking to me about them,” Brendan Smith said. “We understand what’s going on. We see it on the board. We know they’re behind us and they’re coming. We know how it was. Last year and the year before it’s like playoff games, you’re coming, you’re bringing it, you’re trying to scratch and claw for any kind of points. We see it but the biggest thing for us is we want to keep getting better. That’s our mentality, get ready for the playoffs. I know what (Reilly) is going through, it’s a grind. A lot of people counted us out the last few years but it comes down to those last few points and those last couple of games where you keep grinding and find a way to get in.”

With 10 games remaining, the Wings are fortunate to be in the preverbal driver’s seat. However, they are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games and haven’t won back to back in three weeks, while goalie Jimmy Howard is 2-4-1 with a 3.47 goals-against average and .879 save percentage during that span.

“We’ve just got to win,” defenseman Kyle Quincey said. “It doesn’t really matter what (other teams) do. They’re definitely putting some pressure on us and we definitely … we’ve got to start winning games. That’s the bottom line.”

Despite Howard’s recent struggles in net, coach Mike Babcock continues to hold firm to his allegiance to the Wings’ No. 1 goaltender, who will start against the San Jose Sharks tonight at Joe Louis Arena.

“He’s our starting goalie until he’s not our starting goalie,” Babcock said following Thursday’s morning skate. “I’ve been here a long time. I’ve had lots of goalies. We’ve had lots of goalies struggle. Your guy is normally your guy. If he’s not your guy you find another way to go. The bottom line is he played two good games, couldn’t keep it out of our net last game. He gets an opportunity to go again today.”

Since returning from a slightly torn groin muscle sustained in Washington on Jan. 10, Howard is 6-5-3 with a 3.00 GAA and .898 save percentage. Before the injury, Howard was enjoying an All-Star season, literally, compiling a 15-7-7 record with a 2.11 GAA and .920 save percentage.

In fact, a few hours prior to the game in which he was hurt against the Capitals, the league announced that Howard was named to the NHL All-Star team.

The Wings need Howard to return to his early-season form if the team is going to ride into the playoffs with any kind of confidence. But it’s not all on his shoulders.

“He’s got to be better. Our group has to be better. We have to find ways to win games,” Babcock said. “You can’t give up five goals like we did last game. We gave up two power-play goals against and I thought our penalty kill was outstanding. We have to do a better job of keeping the puck out of our net. You can’t win in this league giving up goals. We have to buckle down. We have an off day (Wednesday), we should be fresh. We’re playing a team that’s playing for their playoff life and we’re playing for our playoff life let’s be honest here. We have to dig in and play well. You have to embrace the opportunity you’re given. Here’s a good one.”

Veteran defenseman Niklas Kronwall returns tonight after missing Tuesday’s game with an undisclosed lower-body injury. He’ll be paired with his usual D-partner Jonathan Ericsson, and he’ll work the blue line on the Wings’ top power play unit.

Detroit is still without top-line center Pavel Datsyuk, who will miss his fifth consecutive game with a lower-body injury. The Wings will also be without forward Erik Cole, who appeared to suffer a head, neck or shoulder injury when he collided with Arizona forward Lauri Korpikoski in the first period Tuesday.

Cole is expected to also miss both games this weekend against Tampa Bay and the New York Islanders. Datsyuk remains day to day.

“We shoot for today, it doesn’t work well. Now we shoot for next game,” said Datsyuk, who participated in Thursday’s morning skate. “Every day is better. I’m having more confidence and more power.”

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