SUNRISE, Fla. – Now comes the sprint to the finish.
With 35 games left on the regular season – 20 on the road beginning tonight in Florida – the Red Wings are well rested and ready for the drive to a 24th consecutive playoff appearance.
“It’s definitely a push, you’re kind of past that halfway so you’re kind of on the downswing of the season,” forward Justin Abdelkader said. “It always goes by quick after All-Star break. It’s important to get going right away, get started. All teams, first day back, are going to be a little rusty and the first few games but’s almost a race to the finish now and I think we set ourselves up in a good position.”
The Red Wings are in a great position with 63 points, tied with the New York Islanders, just one back of Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay.
The Wings begin the second half of the regular season holding down top-10 spots in several team and individual categories, including:
Team Top 10
•No. 1, power-play goals (44)
•No. 2, power-play percentage (25.4)
•No. 3, fewest shots allowed per game (27.1)
•No. 3, face-off winning percentage (53.9)
•No. 5, fewest penalties per game (8.2 PIM)
•No. 6, penalty kill percentage (84.6)
•No. 7, fewest goals allowed per game (2.38)
•No. 10, goals per game (2.92)
Individual Top 10
•No. 2, Tomas Tatar, game-winning goals (5)
•No. 3, Gustav Nyquist, power-play goals (11)
•No. 8, Tomas Tatar, goals (21)
•No. 9, Henrik Zetterberg, assists (30)
Then there is center Pavel Datsyuk, who isn’t a front runner for any statistical categories, though he is nearly producing a point per game this season. Through 36 games, Datsyuk has registered 15 goals and 20 assists. Only New York Rangers center Derek Stepan has a higher points per game average (32 points in 31 games) in fewer games played than Datsyuk.
Prior to the five-day break, the Red Wings were on a five-game winning streak. They’ll look to extend that streak to six straight against a Panthers (20-14-10) that they haven’t beaten in two tries this season.
“They got good skill, they got good size on the back, they got right and left shots, they move the puck good,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “Up front they got good depth at forward, they’re good in goal, they’re a pretty good hockey club. The other thing that makes them tough sometimes for our club is we don’t perceive them … when you’re playing a team that’s leading the league, when you play a team that you know is good, you prepare like that. Sometimes these guys get off to a good start against us because we’re not ready to go. Obviously losing to them twice sets us up with a better opportunity that way.”
Regardless, the Wings know they need to continue stockpiling victories if they’re to qualify for the postseason, especially with Montreal (61 points) and Boston (57) not far behind in the Atlantic Division race.
“You’ve got to win games,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “If you look at our division, the teams ahead of us are winning games, the teams behind us are winning games so you have to keep winning if you want to be in the hunt.”
After tonight’s game at BB&T Center, the Red Wings will be off to Tampa Bay, another team that has given them fits in recent seasons.
“They got huge talent. They’re good on the back, good up front,” Babcock said, of the Lightning. “They got real good depth, they got a guy named (Tyler) Johnson who’s a star in the league. They got excellent talent base. They got a young team, a big goaltender (Ben Bishop). We’ve had some good games with them over the last couple of years and they’ve come out on top more than we’ve come out on top. We got Florida first and we’re going to focus on that but look forward to playing them both.”