Ted Kulfan breaks down Wings' possible playoff foes

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Raleigh, N.C. — The Red Wings clinched their 24th consecutive spot in the postseason — the longest active streak in North American professional sports — Thursday despite a 4-3 overtime loss to the Canadiens.

"I'm thrilled," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said after the loss. "People talk about 24 years but for me, 10 years since the lockout (2004-05) we're the only team in the National Hockey League to make it all 10 times.

"The last three years we've been grinding to get in. We've changed our group totally and to find a way has been incredible."

Still, it hasn't gone smooth the last six weeks.

The Red Wings are 6-10-3 since March 1, and haven't won consecutive games since Feb. 26-March 4.

But it was a six-game trip through Chicago, three California teams, and Nashville when Detroit went 4-1-1 and may have solidified a playoff berth.

"We set ourselves up with our West Coast trip," defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "We put ourselves in a great spot. We haven't played great of late, but the way we battled (Thursday), that's the way we have to play."

Some analysts and fans could be sneering and saying the Red Wings backed into the playoffs.

To which the Red Wings say — fine.

"They can say what they want," goaltender Jimmy Howard said. "We're in the playoffs."

The next question is, who will they play?

It's down to three teams — Canadiens, Lightning or Rangers.

If the Red Wings earn at least one point tonight against the Hurricanes, they'll finish third in the Atlantic Division and face the second-place team — the Canadiens or Lightning.

If the Red Wings lose and the Senators defeat the Flyers, the Red Wings will earn a wild-card berth and face a division winner — Rangers (Metropolitan) or Canadiens or Lightning (Atlantic).

The top-seeded Rangers play the wild card with the worst record.

Here's a look at the possible opponents.

N.Y. Rangers

Record: 52-22-7 (111 points)

Last 10: 6-4-0

vs. Red Wings: 2-0-1

Injuries: Kevin Klein (broken left arm; expected to return)

Goaltending: Henrik Lundqvist returned from a neck injury two weeks ago and is finding his form. The former Vezina Trophy winner carried the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Finals last season and has the capability to steal a series. Backup Cam Talbot was sensational filling in for Lundqvist.

Key players: LW Rick Nash had a bounce-back season with 42 goals and Cs Derick Brassaard (59 points) and Derek Stepan (55 points) are consistent offensive elements. The acquisition of D Keith Yandle made the unit stronger.

Strength: This roster is stacked and there's a lot of players who've played a lot of meaningful games. They're the Presidents' Trophy winners and reached the Finals last season. They know how to win. And they're fast.

Weakness: The Rangers have been in coast mode for a while, and sometimes it's difficult to flip the switch back. Lundqvist hasn't played much since returning from injury and has looked rusty.

Outlook: This series could turn out for the Red Wings like last season's Bruins series (a five-game elimination).

Montreal

Record: 49-22-10 (108 points)

Last 10: 5-2-3

vs. Red Wings: 2-2-0

Injuries: LW Max Pacioretty (concussion; could return)

Goaltending: Carey Price leads the NHL in every major statistical category — 43 wins, 1.95 goals-against average, .934 save percentage and nine shutouts. That 43rd victory Thursday over the Red Wings set a franchise record. Price is the favorite for the Vezina (best goaltender) and Hart (MVP) trophies.

Key players: It starts and ends with Price, who is capable of frustrating a team. But Pacioretty (Michigan), C Tomas Pekanec and RW Brendan Gallagher have pestered the Red Wings, and D P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov and Jeff Petry (Orchard Lake St. Mary) are an offensive-minded trio.

Strength: This is a well-structured and well-coached team that normally doesn't beat itself. With Price as the backbone, they're not afraid to play in their zone and can counter quickly and effectively. It's not easy playing at the Bell Centre.

Weakness: The Canadiens are 20th in offense (2.60) and prefer not to get into high-scoring games. After the second line, the depth dips.

Outlook: You can almost sense at the end of this series, Red Wings fans will be talking about how a goaltender (Price) swiped the victory.

Tampa Bay

Record: 49-24-8 (106 points)

Last 10: 6-3-1

vs. Red Wings: 1-2-1

Injuries: Ds Braydon Coburn (lower body; first round), Jason Garrison (upper body; second round), Andrej Sustr (upper body, first round)

Goaltending: Ben Bishop has been among the best statistically the last two seasons, but didn't play well in last season's first-round playoff sweep to the Canadiens. Bishop also hasn't been as sharp the last few weeks.

Key players: The Lightning have outstanding skill players led by C Steven Stamkos (43 goals), who possesses one of the best shots in the NHL. C Tyler Johnson (72 points, 43 assists) is an elite skater and setup man, while C Valtteri Filppula (48 points) didn't have a great season but can be dangerous in the playoffs.

Strength: Few teams can match the depth and skill over four lines as Tampa Bay. The Lightning come at you in waves and can outscore a team. Bishop has proven to be a top-tier goaltender.

Weakness: This isn't a big team, and it's not overly physical. The defense is banged up, although it should get healthier in time for the playoffs. The defense has been thin in recent weeks.

Outlook: The Red Wings match up well and dominated the Lightning on March 28 (4-0 victory).