January 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Red Wings' mounting injuries only part of problem

Blues forward Alexander Steen tries to get the puck past Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard in the first period Monday night. Howard eventually left the game after aggravating a knee injury. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)

Detroit — Injuries may be forgiven, as the old fable goes, but not forgotten. Or ignored.

And in the immediate aftermath of another disturbing home loss for the Red Wings on Monday night, there was no avoiding the issue, though coach Mike Babcock certainly tried.

His team lost another key player to injury in a 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues, as starting goaltender Jimmy Howard apparently aggravated the same knee that sidelined him for three weeks in December.

But Babcock’s team — or what’s left of it, with seven other regulars missing from the lineup — also lost in so many other areas in this game that he had little interest in discussing Howard’s absence. Or what led to his No. 1 goalie’s departure midway through the second period.

“He got hurt,” Babcock said.

Where? How?

“Same knee, I guess,” he replied.

How serious is it?

“I got no idea,” Babcock answered, clearly ready to move on to something else.

Howard wasn’t made available to the media Monday night, but he was milling about in the training room after the game, and for now he’s listed as day-to-day.

Which puts him in good company, with the likes of Pavel Datsyuk (groin) and Daniel Alfredsson (back), and probably in better shape than some others, such as Johan Franzen (concussion) and certainly Stephen Weiss (hernia surgery).

“You know, it’s the NHL,” Babcock said. “We can whine all we want about injuries. They happen."

That they keep happening to the Wings, of course, has been the story of their season thus far, right or wrong.

But at a certain point, and I think we’ve probably reached it, judging by the way Monday’s game unraveled, it’s time to shift the focus to the real story: The Wings have fallen, and they may not be able to get back up.

Now, we said that a year ago and the Wings rallied late to extend their postseason streak, then make a bit of a run in the playoffs. And history suggests that in an Olympic year, anything isn’t just possible, it’s expected. (See the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2006 and 2010, for instance.)

Losing ground

But Detroit now sits seven points behind Montreal for the last Atlantic Division playoff spot, and suddenly among a handful of teams looking up at Toronto and Columbus for the two wild-card berths in the Eastern Conference.

And while this five-game homestand was billed as a chance for the Wings to find some traction before next month’s Olympic break and the stretch run that’ll follow, it may prove to be just the opposite.

Because for a team that has forgotten what home ice is all about in the NHL — the Wings hadn’t played here since Dec. 23 and they’ve won just seven of 25 games in Detroit all season – looks can be deceiving.

Next up are the defending Stanley Cup champs from Chicago – the hope is Jonas Gustavsson will be able to start in net after his own three-week absence — followed by a decent Montreal team they haven’t seen and a bad Florida team they can’t beat.

“Yeah, for sure,” said Justin Abdelkader, when asked if players were starting to notice the shadows looming in the standings. “We’re starting to slip a little bit. We’ve got to get rolling here.”

And they’ve got to stop getting rolled the way they did Monday, losing battles in front of the net shift after shift at both ends of the ice.

“I thought they manhandled us, to tell you the truth,” Babcock said of the Blues, who were both bigger and, as he noted, “better in all situations of the game.”

Indeed, with or without Howard, the Wings weren’t going to win this game the way they were playing, which is why captain Henrik Zetterberg insisted later, “This is a game that we just gotta flush.”

Heavy duty in net

Howard was trying to do just that with the first half of his season. He’d “just kind of got himself going,” Babcock noted, entering Monday’s game with a 3-2-1 record, 1.90 goals-against average and .950 save percentage in the month of January.

And after missing three weeks in December due to that sprained MCL in his left knee, his teammates certainly were doing their part to keep him busy. Howard faced 40-plus shots in three of his last five starts, and he was headed for another Monday as the Blues pelted him with 18 shots in the first period alone.

The Wings know they can’t score right now — that’s three goals in their last four games, and less than 2.5 per game for the season – so they’re relying on structure and effort to get by.

They’re also relying on “a bunch of kids,” as Babcock put it Monday. And that’s both an encouraging development – considering the contributions from some of the vets like Daniel Cleary (eight points in 48 games) and Todd Bertuzzi (11 points in 43 games) — and a shaky proposition

Sure, the kids got a goal Monday, as Gustav Nyquist, one of the guys who has to stay when — or if — the other top-line forwards return from injuries, finally netted his team’s first legit power-play goal of the new year.

But they also gave up a couple, and Babcock didn’t sound thrilled with Tomas Jurco’s tripping penalty that negated a power play to start the second period and led to the Blues’ go-ahead, 4-on-4 goal just 15 seconds later.

“When you come up (to the NHL) and you’re here and you don’t play heavy, you never have the puck,” Babcock said. “You just keep giving it away. And that was tonight.”

The Wings know they can’t afford to give too many more away like this, and you can hear it in the voices of some of the veterans.

“We can win with this group,” Abdelkader said. “We do have a lot of young guys, a lot of guys filling in, but we can still get it done with this group.”

Right now, though, they’re simply not. And while time isn’t running out just yet, the time for excuses is.


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