April 12, 2014 at 10:34 pm

Gregg Krupa

Playoff opponent set, but young Red Wings can't take Sunday off

Drew Miller on Sunday's game against the Blues: 'We just want to play well in the last game and see where we're at come playoff time, what we've got.' (David Guralnick / Detroit News)

Proven time and again this season is that the Red Wings must play right to win.

That makes the last game of the regular season Sunday important, despite the Blue Jackets securing the seventh seed in the playoffs Saturday.

The Wings did not play right against the Hurricanes at home Friday. For a roster stocked with developing players one game before the playoffs, that makes the matinee contest with the much-injured Blues on Sunday an especially important match.

These Wings need to get what was right about their play for so much of March and April back into their game before they play the Boston Bruins in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, beginning Thursday on the road.

“It’s a big game for us,” said Drew Miller. “We just want to play well in the last game and see where we’re at come playoff time, what we’ve got.”

When it was mentioned the Blues may have a big game to play against the Wings, with the possibility of home-ice advantage at stake, coach Mike Babcock was matter-of-fact.

“That’s great. So do we,” Babcock said. “I want to play well.”

“It’s not like we didn’t play well last night,” he said. “We out-chanced them. We had lots of chances. We got away from doing what we do, the detail and the grind and the extra work that we need to be successful.”

The coach known for his intensity and preparation willingly allowed his team, which exceeded expectations in March and April, some slack.

“You know, human nature is that you’ve been battling like crazy, you get a spot and you let up for a second, and then the game gets away on you and you can’t get it back,” Babcock said of a lineup that is younger than the Red Wings have taken to the playoffs in many seasons.

“We had tons of opportunity to score, we just let it get away and (the Hurricanes’ Cam) Ward played really well in the net.

“So, we understand we’ve got to be better and how we’ll go about doing that.”

An important indicator

As they prepare for the playoffs, look for how successful the Wings are Sunday against a team that has been near the top of the Western Conference all season.

“The last time they played us they manhandled us,” Babcock said, recalling that the Red Wings forecheck, a critical component of the defensive strategy, did not drive on the Blues’ defensemen.

“We couldn’t get into the back end at all,” he said, “and they just came in waves and they crushed us.”

Niklas Kronwall, the de facto field general for the team for six weeks since bone fragments along Henrik Zetterberg’s spine caused a pinched nerve, said it is about using the game against the Blues to lift performance.

“I think it’s just about taking care of the puck better than we did last night,” Kronwall said, as bags were packed for the trip.

“It’s about playing more structured. Last night, it was just way too much up and down, up and down,” he said, of the wide-open nature of some of the play. And that’s not the way we’ve had success in the past.

“We’ve got to make sure we get out of our zone quick and get the pucks deep and really grind it out, so to speak. That’s how we win.

“Of course, they want to be feeling well going into the playoffs, so it should be a good game.”

Jimmy Howard tried to match Ward’s terrific performance Friday, and found that allowing two goals was too much, regardless of how his mates contributed to his circumstances. Howard may be able to measure himself against his fellow American Olympian Ryan Miller, the former Spartan, if Miller plays.

At his best, Miller is one of the best in the game, although his performance has fallen off recently, amid a flurry of injuries for the Blues.

With Zetterberg under doctor’s orders not to face contact for another five to seven days, depending on who is counting, he is unlikely to play in the first round. Pavel Datsyuk has returned and looks increasingly frisky, but his bothersome knee clearly means he will not be at full strength for the remainder of the campaign.

That means Johan Frazen must buck them up.

Mule call

Franzen has seven goals and 11 assists since he returned to the lineup Feb. 26 after the Olympic break. But the ever-streaky big man has no goals in the past eight played and one in 18 since scoring two against the Devils in 14:52 on the ice March 7.

He has six assists in those 18 games.

Franzen seems much involved, just not tallying. And the Red Wings and their coach well know how a hot Franzen can lift them.

“Well, I think it’s the Mule’s time of year,” Babcock said, when asked about the recent performance and statistics.

“We really need him to dig in and really get to that next level for us, and just continue to shoot the puck and play with grit and determination. He’s got to be one of our best players if we’re going to have success.

“He knows that. He’s getting himself ready.”

Better deployment, allowing the Blues less ice than they gave the Hurricanes, less time in their own zone, more orientation toward the details of their game, a crisp performance by Howard and a goal from Franzen would be welcome sights for the Red Wings on the eve of their 23rd consecutive playoff campaign, in the 82nd game of an extraordinary season.

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com
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