Wojo: Wings must show they can withstand tension again

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Red Wings' Justin Abdelkader and goalie Jimmy Howard react after being scored on in the third period of a 5-2 loss to the Bruins.

The big red roller-coaster won’t stop until the very last ride. It’s fitting, even if fans find it dizzying.

The Red Wings careened back down the track Thursday night, losing to the Bruins in Boston, 5-2, leaving them one last shot to extend their playoff streak. The only certainty about these Wings is the uncertainty night to night, period to period. After one of their best performances in beating the Flyers, the Wings were flat-out flattened by the Bruins.

It was a weak, scattered response against a desperate opponent, with Jimmy Howard pulled early in the third period. The Wings will have a chance to redeem themselves, and it’ll likely come down to the season finale in New York against the Rangers Saturday — win in regulation or overtime and they’re in. They also could slide in if the Bruins and Flyers lose their remaining games. The Wings might get some help extending their playoff streak to 25 years, but in their first chance to do it themselves, they failed.

Jeff Blashill promised no excuses with the Wings playing a second huge game in less than 24 hours, but clearly, weariness was a factor. The defense had done a fine job tightening up recently but went back to leaking badly, and Howard couldn’t do much to stop it. Blashill replaced him with Petr Mrazek 45 seconds into the third period, when it was apparent the Wings weren’t slowing the Bruins’ onslaught.

How the Red Wings can make the playoffs

It was a move of self-preservation — the Wings were being outshot 26-13 at that point — and Blashill certainly should go back to Howard on Saturday. Mrazek didn’t allow a goal the rest of the way but the outcome already was determined. It won’t matter who’s in net if the Wings play like this, like a tired team that didn’t come close to matching the Bruins’ intensity.

“Having such an emotional game (Wednesday night), coming off such a big victory and getting in relatively late, and having to get up for another emotional game, it was tough,” Howard said. “We just didn’t have our ‘A’ game. We knew it was going to be extremely tough.

Under attack early

Less than three minutes in, two defensive mistakes led to a pair of Boston goals, the second a blast by Brad Marchand off a cross-ice pass. It was the worst possible start for the Wings, and if excuses were allowed, they could point out they arrived in Boston at 3 Thursday morning, while the Bruins were rested.

But this is what the Wings are supposed to be prepared for, after all these years of late-season drives. Howard played for the second consecutive night instead of a rested Mrazek and it looked like the right move by Blashill, with Howard having won four straight. And really, there wasn’t much the goalie could do as the Bruins attacked the net from the start.

Howard and the Wings were rattled but settled down, and got a big break in the second period. Defenseman Alexy Marchenko’s half-pass, half-shot caromed off a Boston skate and into the net, and the deficit was sliced to 3-1.

This was a daunting task for the Wings, sure, but it shouldn’t have been impossible. The Bruins were staggering through a major slide, losing nine of their past 12 games. Goalie Tuukka Rask hasn’t been dominant, which is why the Bruins were vulnerable. Then again, outside of the Washington Capitals, pretty much everyone in the NHL is vulnerable.

Last test not surprising

Two weeks ago, the Wings looked just about done. They lost at home on a Saturday afternoon to the Penguins, 7-2, and first-year coach Blashill faced his first mini-crisis. After another loss at Montreal, Blashill went back to Howard and stuck with him, and it has paid off. It will have to pay off at least one more game.

The Wings have been stuck for a while in that slippery neutral zone between being contenders and being playoff outsiders. The flashy debut of rookie Dylan Larkin and the emergence of Mrazek heightened their hopes this season, but then Mrazek lost his way, allowing Howard to rediscover his way.

Wings whiff on chance to lock down playoff spot

The Wings have mostly been hanging on, playing a league-high 46 one-goal games. They’re 27-8-11 in those contests, showing they’re capable of handling the tension. The experienced Howard is used to the tight moments and the Wings have leaned on him. But on this night, they slid back to sloppiness, and the Bruins took advantage. Now one last test awaits, and I suppose we shouldn’t have expected anything different.