April 29, 2013 at 4:53 pm

Gregg Krupa

Red Wings shift into high gear at optimum time

Jimmy Howard is on a hot streak entering the playoffs. He has won four straight games while giving up just three total goals, and he has three shutouts in the last seven games. (David Guralnick/Detroit News)

Detroit -- The Red Wings can beat the Ducks in the first round because:

They are playing their best hockey of the season and they have been for a week, winning four in a row when it was a must.

Beginning March 13, they recovered their power play for the first time in a calendar year, finishing with the most power-play goals at home in the NHL.

On Saturday, their special teams' percentages added together — 81.7 percent on the power play and 18.4 percent on the penalty kill — finally crossed the 100 percent sum, which normally is a prime ingredient for playoff contenders.

They are a seven seed, the Ducks are a two seed, and upsets like that occur in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs almost every year.

Mike Babcock likes his seventh-seeded team in the playoffs, and the last time that was true his Ducks upset the second-seeded Wings in a four-game sweep in 2003. The series sealed Babcock's reputation for preparation.

Now these Red Wings can deliver the payback for this franchise.

Jimmy Howard has three shutouts in seven games down the stretch, has not let in more than two goals since April 17 and has shown the ability to ramp up his game in previous playoffs.

Their captain, Henrik Zetterberg, is capable of scoring with a 230-pound defenseman draped all over him, adding a short-handed goal and warding off two defenders to pass the puck with the blade of his skate on top of it, in a kicking motion, to start the play on a third goal in the 3-0 playoff-clinching game Saturday night.

Compare it to a clutch performance by Steve Yzerman or Nicklas Lidstrom, if you must. But understand that Zetterberg long ago secured his own spot in the Red Wings' pantheon.

And, as the exultation in his face after the first goal showed, he longs to burnish his place.

Pavel Datsyuk plays for them.

He has two goals and six assists in four games and he is handing out body checks with such frequency, if he keeps it up, he may have to return one of his four Lady Byng Memorial Trophies.

It is April, Johan Franzen is healthy and The Mule is kickin'.

Niklas Kronwall, a model of self-possession and leadership, finished sixth among NHL defensemen in scoring.

Justin Abdelkader, who led them in hits, was fifth in goals scored.

They are 6-2-3 since the 23-year-old Danny DeKeyser entered the lineup April 5.

DeKeyser skates like the wind and he seems to be out of position about as much as the Penobscot Building.

Jakub Kindl finished plus-15, with four goals and 13 points and a lot fewer "ooops!" moments than previously in his career.

Kyle Quincey recovered from a lukewarm performance last season and a miserable opening night against the Blues to help stabilize the defense and the penalty kill.

Quincey finished plus-7.

Jonathan Ericsson was plus-6, with three goals and 13 points.

Ericsson's assist on the tying goal against the Kings on Wednesday and a long pass, up-the-gut to Joakim Andersson vs. the Coyotes, which nearly resulted in a big goal, show he can provide offense.

For the first time in 3 1/2 months, they have more productive third and fourth lines, led by a quicker-skating Jordin Tootoo, the shooting of Patrick Eaves, the sniping of Damien Brunner, the hustle of Cory Emmerton, the speed of Gustav Nyquist and the size and smarts of Joakim Andersson.

If an opponent checks any of the Red Wings in the head while they are wearing a full face mask to protect a fracture, like Quincey, he needs to be prepared for the shaft of Brendan Smith's stick smashed against his cheek and then to be hauled face-first into the ice by the playing-with-an-edge former Badger.

Just ask Vernon Fiddler of the Stars.

And if that seems too aggressive for avoiding the penalty box, remember the Kings became Stanley Cup champions in 2012 with copious amounts of aggression and generally assaultive behavior.

The Wings' first two injured forwards will be replaced by Todd Bertuzzi and Mikael Samuelsson, who are both finally healthy.

Obviously, they are not in game shape. But they are experienced in the playoffs, wise and really, really, really sick-and-tired of not participating in all of the fun.

The Wings are deep on defense, if injuries occur, with Ian White, Carlo Colaiacovo and Brian Lashoff all healthy and ready to play.

They just put together the best last week of a season in this town since the Tigers caught the Blue Jays for the AL East crown in 1987.

After losing three of their top four defensemen in the previous two seasons, they had only five days for a training camp, no exhibition games, the most man-games lost to injuries, and rookies playing a total of 76 man-games on defense, and, regardless, they finished seventh in the West.

Fifteen years after they won a second consecutive Stanley Cup and most observers thought, many with wishful intent, the Wings would fade as a franchise, they are still making the playoffs.

The Ducks are comparatively slow.

gkrupa@detroitnews.com