March 6, 2013 at 4:46 pm

John Niyo

Wings make point by securing 2 in parity-primed playoff race

Detroit — It was almost the same, old thing for the Red Wings on Tuesday night, with sticks flailing and the puck bouncing and fans cringing and a win threatening to vanish just like that.

Yet, as Red Wings general manager Ken Holland reminded me moments after the horn sounded, heading to the dressing room after his team's 2-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche at Joe Louis Arena, this was nothing like the same, old game they used to play with their one-time rivals.

No, Holland said, "This is the new NHL."

And in this league, every last point is going to count. So most nights, that means every last minute will, too, whether you're up or down, out in front or bringing up the rear. Truth is, just about everybody's stuck in the middle now, and it shows.

"A win puts us in a playoff spot, a loss takes us out of a playoff spot," Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said, shrugging and smiling as he nodded to the already-outdated league standings scribbled on a white board in the team's dressing room. "That's just how it's gonna be."

If they didn't understand that a month ago, they certainly do now. And just as their fans have realized these aren't the Wings of the past, the Wings appear to have realized the same thing. Which is a good thing, at least if you're worried about that playoff streak of theirs.

Because gone are the days when this team routinely outshoots opponents by a 2-to-1 margin, dominating the league's lesser teams on its way to a 100-point season. Instead, it's the Wings talking about learning to play a "simple game" and relying on a hot goaltender to bail them out when they don't play one well enough.

Howard the savior

No question, it was Jimmy Howard who saved the Wings on Tuesday night, stopping 36 shots and pitching a shutout against the Avalanche until Paul Stastny scored with the goalie pulled for an extra attacker with 90 seconds left.

Earlier in the third period, Howard had stoned Avs center John Mitchell with a diving glove save on a point-blank backhander. He also robbed PA Parenteau on a breakaway. And after he'd withstood another flurry — and nearly one too many chances — in the final minute, the Wings goalie was congratulated by his teammates, a few of them shaking their heads as much at what they'd nearly done to him as what he'd done for them.

"Howie was unbelievable," said Johan Franzen, who was pretty good himself, putting another half-dozen shots on net — just as he did against Chicago on Sunday — and scoring the night's first goal on a breakaway.

That's an encouraging sign for the Wings, on both counts. Howard seems to be finding his groove now, with a 1.38 goals-against average in his last five starts. (The Wings, by the way, are 4-1-1 in their last six.) And the Mule, after a sluggish start, finally seems to be kicking his game into gear — a necessity for a lineup that's still missing four of its top nine forwards.

"Last game, he got better as the game went on," coach Mike Babcock said. "Today, he was ready to go from the start, and we need him to be. He can be a force for us."

Up front, the Wings appear to be doing a better job of that. And, yes, Babcock did relent — albeit briefly in the second period — by replacing Justin Abdelkader, who hasn't scored a goal since last March, with Tomas Tatar on Pavel Datsyuk's line.

But the biggest change might be on the back end, where the suspect defense also is doing more with less. Or maybe it's vice versa, as Howard sees it.

"I think early on we were trying to do a little bit too much with the puck" Howard said. "Now we're keeping it simple. If the play's not there, or if our forwards aren't the right spot, the (defensemen) aren't afraid to go off the glass, instead of trying to force something."

Playoff possibilities abound

Of course, even the easy plays seem harder these days. as Jonathan Ericsson discovered Sunday, when his blue-line blunder cost Howard and the Wings a shutout win against the league's best team. Tuesday, though, they managed to hold on — barely — against one of the NHL's worst teams.

Then again, who's to say what's good or bad in this league anymore? Because, as Howard noted after Tuesday's win, "All of a sudden, we go from 10th to fourth, just like that."

Well, at least that's the way the standings looked as they left the rink Tuesday night, with the late games still being played. But he's right: The NHL standings really are a statistical snow globe these days. And every night, it's as if an elf in the league office — no, not you, Gary — shakes it to create a magical new world of playoff possibilities.

After flying home from a two-game California trip Friday morning, the Wings were sitting in fourth place in the Western Conference. Tuesday, they found themselves in 10th, despite earning a point in the only game they'd played in the interim — Sunday's shootout loss to the Blackhawks.

That's parity, for you. It's also the fun and folly of this abbreviated schedule, which only makes the gimmicky shootout — and the three-point games that sadly won't go away — an even bigger menace.

Through Monday, there had been 44 shootouts in the NHL, meaning nearly one in seven games (13.7 percent) became imaginary three-point affairs, with a two-point winner and a one-point loser in a game that was really a tie. The bulk of those have involved teams in the West, where a whopping 29 extra points already had been awarded for shootout wins.

With a system like that, is it any wonder the standings are so cluttered? Nope, but there's no sense wondering about why things can't be the way they used to be, as Babcock keeps telling everyone.

"The day they ended the lockout in (2005), we knew this was on its way," said Babcock, whose team will play 15 of its final 24 on the road after Thursday's first-half finale against Edmonton. "It's gonna be like the NFL: Everyone's gonna have a chance."

And chances are, the Wings are going to have plenty more nights like this before this season's over...

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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Red Wings defenseman Jakub Kindl and Avalanche forward Chuck Kobasew collide in the first period Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
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