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Wings games are hitting playoff intensity

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — With one-third of the season remaining, the playoff races are in full swing.

And they have the intensity of the playoffs.

"From here on out, it's the playoffs," Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard said. "No matter who we play, everyone is tracking for position and trying to get in (the playoffs).

"It'll be like playoff games from here on out, and it's a good time for young players to get a taste of this."

Which makes the upcoming six-game trip that begins tonight in Chicago and runs through Dallas, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose and Nashville, crucial.

The only team not in the Western Conference playoff picture among that group is Dallas, which is six points out of a spot.

"We need to elevate now, the league's picked up the pace and we have to have our players pick up as well," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "You have to find a way to win games, it's just that simple."

Monday's 2-0 loss to Montreal was a prime example of a regular-season game that looked and felt like a playoff matchup.

Babcock called it a "check-fest" — a defensive struggle with neither team allowing room to roam on the ice.

"You have to check for your chances and be diligent about the process," Babcock said. "Guys have to get better, and you have to understand if you can't do it without the puck, you're not getting to play."

Mrazek sent down

Petr Mrazek is headed back to Grand Rapids, while Teemu Pulkkinen is returning to the Red Wings.

Mrazek, who was superb filling in for Howard in January, was sent to Grand Rapids with Howard (groin) and Jonas Gustavsson (shoulder) healthy and playing.

Mrazek is 13-5-1 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .909 save percentage with the Red Wings. He was 9-2-0 after Howard's slight groin tear Jan. 10.

"(Mrazek) deserved all the credit he got," Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "He played great for us."

Pulkkinen has a American League-leading 57 points (30 goals) in 44 games with Grand Rapids.

Red Wings at Blackhawks

Faceoff: 7:30 tonight, United Center, Chicago

TV/radio: NBCSN/97.1

Outlook: The Red Wings are 1-0 against the Blackhawks. ... The Blackhaws have won their last two games, but are on a 5-3-2 stretch. ... The Blackhawks have the No. 1 penalty kill (87.9 percent).