Red Wings’ deficiencies hamper playoff fight
Detroit — After authoring a disastrous 7-2 loss to the Penguins on Saturday, in which they gave up more goals than they yielded all season and again displayed inadequacies in scoring, intensity and determination, the Red Wings gave license to despair.
With the playoffs on the line and the Wings on the outside looking in, the tenor of the fan base is hoping they can but thinking they cannot.
The Flyers’ 2-1 loss in regulation to the Coyotes Saturday night encouraged hope that a loss really is only a loss, even one so poorly played and bitterly felt.
But the Bruins’ 3-1 win over Mike Babcock’s Maple Leafs and the Islanders’ 4-3 overtime defeat of the Hurricanes Saturday discouraged the notion.
The Wings’ closest rivals for a playoff berth have endured travails. But none have let it take root, like the Red Wings, to the point that scrambled defensive play, a lack of purposeful intention, a moribund power play and a dearth of scoring are season-long afflictions.
The ability of their opponents to marshal remedial action is what holds them above the Wings in the standings.
The difference shrouds the 2016 playoff race in gloom, as the Detroit franchise took Easter Sunday off to contemplate the circumstances. Their prolonged inability to correct course and overcome adversity contrasts with their more plucky opponents.
The Flyers are tied with Detroit with 85 points for the second of two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference, but Philadelphia has a game in hand. To make the playoffs, the Wings have to finish in the top three of the Atlantic Division, or claim one of two wild-card spots in the East.
The Flyers started the season with five wins in 16 games. On Jan. 29, they were nine points out of the playoffs. Given their roster, it was an expected performance. But the Flyers improved and have not lost consecutive games in regulation since Feb. 9.
When second-leading scorer Jakub Voracek left the lineup with an injury from late February to March 19, they went 7-1-1. Fortitude carried them through a 7-3-2 stretch drive, so far, in March.
Their best goalie, Michal Neuvirth, was lost for the rest of the regular season on March 16, but Steve Mason is 2-2-1 since. Even in the 3-2 overtime loss to the Blue Jackets last week, Mason had a shutout going at 18:56 of the third period with his team on the power play.
And, on Saturday night, Mason held the Coyotes to two goals. If not for an outstanding 34-save performance by Mike Smith in the other goal, the Red Wings would be two points out of the playoffs.
The Capitals are the only better team in the conference than the Flyers over the past two months.
In eight remaining games for the Flyers, five are at home, four are against playoff teams and they have three sets of back-to-backs. They also have an unkind stretch of four games in the last five days of their season because of a makeup game against the Islanders.
The Bruins are three points ahead of the Wings, who have a game in hand.
After five consecutive losses brought them from challenging the Panthers for first place in the Atlantic Division to hovering among the last playoff berths, the Bruins righted the ship Saturday. Albeit in a spotty effort against the Maple Leafs, they got both the win and their first power-play goal after 13 consecutive failures.
With a series of personnel moves after their elimination from the playoffs in 2015, the Bruins persuaded their fan base and many other observers they would not contend this season. But the roster pulled itself together and has generally prevailed.
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney traded power forward Milan Lucic, defenseman Dougie Hamilton and Brendan Smith’s brother, Reilly, who is having an excellent offensive season for the Panthers.
Seemingly despite the overhaul, the Bruins proved resilient, overcoming an 0-3 start and some other difficulties that placed them out of the playoffs until winter.
Claude Julien’s performance as coach, when many had him fired after last season and once or twice during the current campaign, ranked him among the favorites for the Jack Adams Award until the recent rough patch.
The Bruins have six games remaining — three at home and three on the road — compared to seven for the Wings and eight for the Flyers and Islanders.
But they play no back-to-backs against three playoff and three non-playoff teams.
The Islanders are the longest stretch for the Red Wings. Four points ahead with a game in hand, any possibility of catching them is slender.
After four winless games, the Islanders defeated the Senators, 3-1, Wednesday before winning in overtime Saturday to lift their record to 3-5-2 since they lost their top goalie, Jaroslav Halak, with a lower-body injury on March 8. They have allowed the Penguins to get the jump on them in the Metropolitan Division, but they have not lost playoff position.
The Islanders play six of their last eight games at home — five against potential playoff teams — and have two sets of back-to-backs.
The Flyers, Bruins and Islanders have proved more resilient and inspired than the Red Wings.
The Wings have either failed to solve problems, like the ineffective power play, or remedy them on a sustained basis, like leaky coverage in the defensive zone. And they still have 11 fewer goals for than against.
The Red Wings did overcome the injuries to Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen at the start of the year. But the roster suddenly feels too old on one end of the timeline of experience and too young on the other to forge the sort of response that a 5-7 record in March requires.
They clearly wanted to play without Babcock and his occasionally manic intensity this season. But if they finish the year out of the playoffs with so many chronic, unresolved deficiencies, there are those who will believe they always needed the rough rider.
Remaining schedules for the Wings and their competition for Eastern Conference playoff spots:
N.Y. ISLANDERS (89 POINTS, EIGHT GAMES)
Home (six) — Carolina (Tuesday), Columbus (Thursday), Pittsburgh (Saturday), Tampa Bay (April 4), Buffalo (April 9), Philadelphia (April 10). Away (two) — Washington (April 5), N.Y. Rangers (April 7).
BOSTON (88 POINTS, SIX GAMES)
Home (three) — Carolina (April 5), Detroit (April 7), Ottawa (April 9). Away (three) — New Jersey (Tuesday), St. Louis (Friday), Chicago (April 3)
PHILADELPHIA (85 POINTS, EIGHT GAMES)
Home (five) — Winnipeg (Today), Washington (Wednesday), Ottawa (Saturday), Toronto (April 7), Pittsburgh (April 9). Away (three) — Pittsburgh (April 3), Detroit (April 6), N.Y. Islanders (April 10)
DETROIT (85 POINTS, SEVEN GAMES)
Home (three) — Buffalo (Today), Minnesota (Friday), Philadelphia (April 6). Away (four) — Montreal (Tuesday), Toronto (Saturday), Boston (April 7), N.Y. Rangers (April 9)