Desperate Wings call on Howard with Howe in the house

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Gordie Howe arrives at Joe Louis Arena before the start of Monday night's game against the Sabres.

Detroit – With Gordie Howe looking on from the owner's suite at Joe Louis Arena Monday night in the company of his family, the Red Wings are calling upon all of their resources with desperation knocking at the door.

Some of their veterans of battles for playoff berths in recent seasons said the players in the lineup must provide their best performances in the final seven games, beginning Monday against the Sabres (7:30 p.m., FSD) if the Wings are going to make the playoffs.

“The chips have been down for a while,” said Jimmy Howard, whose improved play and Petr Mrazek’s decline earned him the start against the Sabres. “We’ve needed to win games here for a while.

“It seems like we win a couple, drop a couple, win a couple, drop a couple. So, we’ve got to find a way to string some together.”

Poor performances up and down the lineup against the Penguins in a devastating 7-2 loss Saturday put a considerable dent in the Wings’ playoff hopes.

Jeff Blashill said his message to the team Saturday was to put it behind them.

“I think for the most part we’ve had that mental toughness of just wipe the slate clean and come back at it the next night,” Howard said, especially of the previous four seasons of playoff drives that were also nip and tuck. “So, we’re expecting a great effort tonight.

“It always helps when we’re playing at home, especially when you need points to your advantage. We have a great following here.”

Red Wings fighting to keep playoff streak alive

The Red Wings were bolstered Saturday by the Flyers, their closest rivals for playoff position, losing to the Coyotes 2-1, despite outshooting Arizona 35-17. The Wings and Flyers have 85 points, but the Flyers maintain a game in hand.

Philadelphia was to play the Jets at home Monday at 7 p.m.

The Bruins are three points ahead of the Wings for third place in the Atlantic Division, and they are idle Monday.

“The mindset for us is no different than it was the other times,” Henrik Zetterberg said of the recent, perilous, late-season drives for playoff position, dating to 2012 at the end of Nicklas Lidstrom’s last season.

Jimmy Howard

“Even though we know we have to win a lot of games, you can’t think ahead. You’ve just got to focus on tonight and play good, get two points and then we move on.”

As for any changes in his approach to the team, as captain, Zetterberg said he has tried to address the issue of intensity, which many of the Red Wings acknowledge as lacking in some games this season – especially in the stretch drive.

“Maybe try to get them a little more desperate,” he said. “You know, we had some iffy starts here. Just try to get everyone going a little earlier.

“We don’t want to fall behind. If we get the first goal, if we play good in the first period, then we have a little better chance.”

Whether it is Red Wings great Ted Lindsay hanging out with the players, as he did before the game against Montreal Thursday, or Howe walking through with his son Mark, the chief pro scout for the Wings, the players say they get a psychological boost.

Among other accomplishments, Howe and Lindsay were consummate late-season and playoff performers, winning Stanley Cups in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1955.

“We’re pretty lucky around here,” Blashill said. “This organization has an unbelievable history.”

Wings’ Athanasiou knows he has to step up his defense

But Blashill was all about the game against the Sabres, to the point of beginning his interview after the morning skate with a statement that the Red Wings will not take questions about the coaching situation at Wisconsin, where assistant coach Tony Granato is reportedly in the running to be head coach of the Badgers.

“The biggest thing is focusing on winning the hockey game tonight,” he said. “You don’t focus on anything in the past. You don’t focus on anything in the future.”

Blashill said he would start Howard over Mrazek because the 32-year-old veteran is playing better lately.

“Lots of it,” was based on recent performance, he said.

“And every game we try to go with the group that we think gives us the best chance to win that night, and we’ve decided that tonight we’re going to go with Jimmy.”

Howard has been through a season entirely unlike his previous six as the regular starter for the Wings, including seeing the No. 1 designation passed to the 24-year-old Mrazek. But he said he feels no added pressure due to the circumstances.

“No, not at all,” he said. “Just play the way I’m normally capable of playing. If I can do that, it’ll just give the guys a chance.

Howard said the current, risky stretch drive feels much like previous seasons.

“Every single time you go out on the ice you know it means a lot,” he said. “You’ve just got to find a way within yourselves to go out there and play as a five-man unit and eliminate turnovers and not give away freebies.

“I’ve just been in the situation before and the fact that you’ve come out on top gives you confidence that you can do it again.”