Tampa, Fla. — Another spring, and another Red Wings’ scramble for the playoffs. Fans not hanging on to their seats risk of falling off the wagon.
When their former coach Mike Babcock came to town last week and drew up a defensive structure his young charges executed to a tee — shutting down the Wings already hard-pressed offense — the bump rattled bones.
When they scored four unanswered goals against the Panthers Saturday, to thunder back from a 3-1 deficit more than halfway through a road game against the Atlantic Division leaders, the large throng of Red Wings fans inside the BB&T Center exulted. A record crowd for the Florida franchise sounded nearly like a home game for the Red Wings.
“If we go out there, focused and paying attention to details and willing to do the little things correctly, then more times than not we’re going to come out on top,” said Jimmy Howard, whose ability to hold his team in the game Saturday and other recent performances demonstrate, once again, the enormous advantage of two quality goaltenders in a playoff drive.
“Points are at a premium now.”
The Red Wings lead the Flyers by three points for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but Philadelphia has two games at hand.
The Flyers announced Sunday that the better of their two goalies, Michal Neuvirth (17-8-4, 2.28 goals against average, .924 save percentage) is lost for the rest of the regular season.
Steve Mason (17-16-8, 2.62 GGA, .916 SP) will likely have to handle the duty the rest of the way.
In recent weeks, Neuvirth has excelled, while Mason has mostly sat.
The loss of Neuvirth may be particularly consequential given the Flyers schedule probably dictates the need for two goalies. They play four more sets of back-to-back games and four games in five nights to end the season.
The Flyers must play the Penguins twice, once at home and once on the road. Those games are often hotly contested regardless of the standings, and Pittsburgh is playing well even without the injured Evgeni Malkin.
The Flyers also play the Red Wings in Detroit on April 6, in what sets up now as perhaps the most important game of the season.
Playing their chief rivals for the playoffs at home is an advantage only magnified by the Red Wings inexplicable inability to win in Philadelphia. They are without a victory there since 1997.
The next day, the Flyers return home to play Babcock’s Maple Leafs.
The young Leafs roster is likely to consider affecting playoff contenders their own playoffs as the season draws to a close, as is often the case with struggling clubs in search of wins and young players in search of jobs.
Before he left Detroit after vanquishing the team he kept in the playoffs for a decade, winning one Stanley Cup and playing in the final once more, arguably the best coach in the game made his preference clear.
“To be honest with you, I’m cheering for Detroit,” Babcock reportedly said, after the game. “Detroit’s important for me.”
Meanwhile, the Red Wings have their old stalwarts, a triad of leadership that has been through it all so many times before: Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall.
Older and slower they are, with each making frank assertions this season about their performances that seem to acknowledge the impact of time on an athlete’s skill. But they remain essential and consequential.
Datsyuk’s two goals against the Panthers helped deliver the win.
The first, on the power play, came with 11 seconds left in the second period and delivered the Red Wings to the dressing room confident of victory. The second, with seven seconds left in the game, sealed the deal.
If the power play, which has lagged in three of the past four seasons after the departure of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, could possibly provide a goal per game over the last 10, it would go a long way towards securing the playoffs. That task is an important one for the leaders, and Datsyuk helped fill the need Saturday when the Red Wings managed two power-play goals.
Kronwall’s teammates considered his return to the lineup so significant that their lusty celebration of the win was in no small part about him. Re-entering the lineup one week after spraining his right knee, “the ultimate warrior,” in Jeff Blashill’s description, assisted on the tying and winning goals and blocked four shots.
Kronwall’s first power-play goal of the season would be a big contribution, on the scoreboard and for the psyche.
And Zetterberg’s career is testament to his ability to lead and even carry the team, especially at this time of year.
Last week was only the latest evidence.
Like Steve Yzerman and Lidstrom before him, the Red Wings’ captain uses statements to his teammates with economy. But after the loss to the Maple Leafs, before the 3-1 defeat of the Blue Jackets, he spoke, reminding the team that it is, in fact, a pretty good hockey club and of the urgency of the moment.
Then, in a season marked by one-goal games, toward the middle of the third period in Columbus ahead 1-0 and with the outcome entirely in the balance, Zetterberg provided the second goal.
Leaders define reality and back their words, and Zetterberg is among the best in the NHL.
To the extent leadership is essential, the Red Wings have it in spades. It has eased the transition from Babcock to Blashill, and it may be even more critical this March and April on a roster that includes three rookies and four others with limited experience this time of year.
Whether they secure the playoffs — let alone achieve their goal of a deeper run than in the recent past — will have much to do with the performance of the trio and the determination and attention to detail of the rest of the roster.
“I think we’ve just got to realize how we’ve got to play to be successful,” said Justin Abdelkader, third on the team in goals with 17, who is pointing towards a second consecutive season at the 20-goal standard.
“Starting the game on time is important and scoring the first goal can be a big momentum shift.
“Goals are hard to come by in this league. It’s not easy to score. So, we’ve just got to do a job of owning both creases and especially in front of their net, if we want to score goals. That’s where you score goals, especially come playoff time.”
They got behind the Panthers’ defense at their crease repeatedly on Saturday.
If the Red Wings make it a trend and take care of their details while defending and possessing the puck, many things are possible, including a playoff berth.
Here is the schedule for the three teams in a fight for the remaining two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference:
No. 7 Islanders (85 points, 12 remaining games): Home (8) Flyers, Senators, Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Penguins, Lightning, Sabres, Flyers. Away (4) Lightning, Hurricanes, Capitals, Rangers.
No. 8 Red Wings (83 points, 10 remaining games): Home (5) Canadiens, Penguins, Sabres, Wild, Flyers. Away (5) Lightning, Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Bruins, Rangers.
No. 9 Flyers (80 points, 12 remaining games): Home (5) Jets, Capitals, Senators, Maple Leafs, Penguins. Away (7) Islanders, Blue Jackets, Avalanche, Coyotes, Penguins, Red Wings, Islanders