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Wojo: Wings intriguing, but not yet elite

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Red Wings have proven, on most nights, they can compete with the best. And soon they'll be asked to take the next step, and show they can regularly beat the best.

It's fair to raise the bar, because in a scintillating run so far, the Wings have jumped over all the lower ones. If this was a playoff precursor, it was a good one, the type of high-level game the Wings will have to win more consistently. Montreal opened up a wider lead in the Atlantic Division with a 2-0 victory Monday night at Joe Louis Arena, although the margin between the teams was narrow. This was not the Habs against the Hab Nots, more of a glance at what awaits.

Carey Price is the best goalie in the league, and he's especially daunting when the Canadiens are playing their patient style, blocking shots, taking few chances. Jimmy Howard matched Price for 57 of the 60 minutes, and that can't be overlooked. In his second start since missing a month with a groin injury, Howard was excellent.

Price and the Canadiens were a shade better, and the Wings will use the final third of the season to try to reduce the shade between them and the East's best. The winning goal by Tomas Plekanec with 2:30 left was the type of play championship contenders make. After Pavel Datsyuk fell down, Plekanec used defenseman Niklas Kronwall as a screen and rifled a perfect shot. An empty-netter with 10 seconds left was inconsequential, as Howard made 28 saves to Price's 25.

"There wasn't much room, it was hard to get to the net for both teams, it was a checkfest," Mike Babcock said. "We knew it was gonna be tough, but I thought it was a real good opportunity for our guys to understand what it's gonna be like. We need to elevate now — the league's picked up the pace and we gotta have our players pick up as well."

The Wings will make the playoffs for the 24th consecutive season, not that Babcock is looking ahead, and it will be a remarkable achievement with so many young players. The immediate tests will shape the larger tests ahead. The Wings are about to play six straight on the road in all sorts of inhospitable places, and it could be telling.

Detroit has lost five straight to Montreal going back to last season, and is winless in five games against Montreal and second-place Tampa Bay this season (0-3-2). The way the revamped playoffs work, the Wings very well could play the Canadiens or Lightning in the first round.

But let's not cherry-pick records against East teams. The Wings also are 1-1 against Pittsburgh, 1-1-1 against Boston and 1-1 against the Islanders. This is far from a competitive crisis, more like a warning for general manager Ken Holland as the March 2 trade deadline approaches. The Canadiens' style fits the playoffs and they lead the league in goals-against. The Wings aren't far behind, fifth in goals-against.

Howard's return to rust-free form will help, and also allow Petr Mrazek to get more seasoning. Acquiring another defenseman would help considerably, and remains the priority. But Holland doesn't need to leap wildly, and I don't think he will. The Wings aren't likely to surrender a first-round pick, and their young prospects have developed so nicely, Holland should be inclined to hang on to most of them. That'd be a stark departure from the deadline wheeling of years past, but it just might make the most sense.

The Wings could go big and land someone like Arizona's Keith Yandle, but the price would be exorbitant. They could get a good, righthanded-shooting defenseman in Edmonton's Jeff Petry (son of former Tiger Dan Petry) but I doubt they'd give up any of three prime prospects — Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha or Teemu Pulkkinen.

There's a chance the Wings will stand pat, although the next two weeks could be revealing. Babcock was pleased with the effort against the Canadiens and he should be, although the tight checking made it a tedious exercise at times.

"I liked it because it's a good evaluation for your players," Babcock said. "Can you carry a guy on your back or not? If you can't carry a guy on your back, it's hard to play at playoff time."

The Wings would be in even better shape if they weren't so poor in shootouts, but that's not an issue in the playoffs. And if Howard was concerned about his return, he was a bit relieved after this one.

"It definitely felt like a playoff game," Howard said. "That's exactly what we expected, that's the way they play on the road. … I felt really good. It was a lot of fun."

The Wings expect a lot more games like this in the coming weeks. They can play this way and win this way against many teams. Eventually, we'll see if they can do it against any team

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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