Krupa: To succeed, Red Wings need both goaltenders

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Newark, N.J. — Winners of two in a row, the Red Wings reasserted their claim as a playoff team in standings that are nip and tuck.

Against the previously hot Devils and the Sabres, they remedied two of their ailments from the last two weeks of the 2015, intensifying their level of competitiveness and controlling the puck.

After a day off and a practice day at home, they begin a four-game road swing versus the Sharks, the disappointing Ducks, surging Kings and the Coyotes.

At 20-13-7, they are a game away from precisely the halfway point of the season.

What is going on?

News: Amid some assertions he is now the No. 1 goaltender, Petr Mrazek started his third consecutive game Monday. It is the first time all season either he or Jimmy Howard skated out first, three times in a row, at the start of the game.

Views: Mrazek deserves it, of course. He has been better, especially since Howard slipped into a funk in his last two starts, after a stretch in which he excelled. But the Red Wings are sending a strong message.

They are not going to get bogged down in the fans’ debate over “Who is No. 1?”

Nor should they.

With 42 games remaining and their goal of playing deep in the playoffs, the strong likelihood is that they will need two goalies playing well.

The idea that Mrazek will never, ever have a stumble similar to Howard’s is absurd.

While it is clear that after his groin injury last season, the night he was named an all-star, Howard’s inconsistency has created considerable space for the 23-year-old Mrazek to stake a claim as the Wings’ regular goalie, well into the future.

Mrazek, who is earning $735,000 this season, is a restricted free agent. Howard is making $5.2 million. Like so much in sport, especially with a salary cap, financial considerations likely will force the Wings to make a decision, eventually.

But, for now, as Mrazek said after shutting out the Devils in a 22-save performance, “You know, I wouldn’t talk about a No. 1 goaltender. It’s just game by game. The season’s long, so every game is different.”

News: With Kyle Quincey set to return, there is a logjam along the blue line.

Views: The Wings are deep with similarly-talented defensemen, albeit at different stages of development.

Quincey, Niklas Kronwall, Danny DeKeyser and Mike Green are certain in their roster positions. Jonathan Ericsson, Brendan Smith and Alexey Marchenko, who has exhibited enormously solid play as a rookie defenseman, are also likely in place.

That puts Jakub Kindl firmly in a position he has mostly occupied in his seven NHL seasons, on the bubble.

Meanwhile, Xavier Ouellet still toils in the minors, way over-ripe. The Wings clearly know that Ouellet likely would have made any one of several NHL rosters not only at the start of last season, but the previous one, too.

The situation hollers for a midseason trade. But a deal that is anything beyond a mere fire sale is a difficult bargain to drive in the era of both free agency and the salary cap, when an equitable swap is discouraged by the financial considerations.

Whatever occurs, it is unlikely Kindl remains among the seven defensemen on the roster and Ouellet must continue to have the patience of Job.

News: Jeff Blashill is reaching the halfway point of his rookie season as an NHL coach.

Views: Blashill can coach.

When the team hit its 1-5-1 stretch after winning the first three games of the season, he boldly juggled the lineup. He was stalwart, unshaken by the suddenly shaky ground beneath him.

His decisions to play Smith and Marchenko regularly, and to unleash Smith’s offensive instincts, despite the 26-year-old’s propensity to occasionally stray, are hallmarks of prophetic discernment.

Despite his fond hope that Riley Sheahan, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar would form the best third line in the NHL, he abandoned the enterprise when it grew ineffective.

Putting Sheahan between Dylan Larkin and Brad Richards clicked immediately.

And when the boys needed a stiff, public kick in their hockey pants, he gave it to them.

“This was totally self-inflicted, 100 percent self-inflicted,” he said, after the 3-1 loss to the Wild on Dec. 28. “Not even close to good enough.”

Blashill also is handling the goalies with an assured ease, despite caterwauling from the chattering classes that the Red Wings must proclaim a No. 1 and stick to him.

Asked after the Devils game who will start against the Sharks, he said, “You know, I’ll decide. Not tonight. So, we’ll decide when we get out west. We’ll make that decision then — publicly, at least.”

Hard to sit a goalie coming off a shutout, though, right?

“Well, again, he’s played good,” Blashill said of Mrazek. “But we’ll make that decision Thursday.”

Evasive? Sure. But Blashill is not running for governor, he is a hockey coach. And his point is to tap down any expectation that he will be drawn into a debate over goaltending in an NHL city famous for loving the controversy.

News: The brilliant goal scored by Larkin against the Devils, with stellar help from Richards and Sheahan, was prettier, cooler and more chock full of skill than any other goal this season.

Views: Yep. And maybe in several seasons.

If fans have not seen it, they need to find a long, fully-inclusive video. From the moment Sheahan controlled the puck deep in his own end until it hit the back of the Devils net, it is the most awesome goal you are likely to see for a long time.

The skill and style displayed was only magnified by the impact of the tally in a 1-0 win.