Wings control their fate with three games left
Detroit — The Red Wings got big boosts from two foes Sunday, and remained in playoff position with three games remaining in their season.
The Blackhawks beat the Bruins, 6-4, and the Penguins defeated the Flyers, 6-2, to solidify the Wings in third place in the Atlantic Division, a point ahead of the Bruins with the same number of games played.
And the two wild-card positions in the Eastern Conference remain an avenue for them, too. The Wings are tied with the Flyers, who have one game in hand, and two points behind the Islanders, who have two games in hand.
Perhaps even better news is that Red Wings improved in their two wins against the Wild on Friday and Maple Leafs on Saturday. But can they sustain the upgrades, and will it be enough?
The Bruins are a puzzle. Which of their multiple traits and behaviors will show up most during the last three games of the season, especially Thursday against the Red Wings in Boston?
The Flyers seem like a team of destiny. Can anyone intercept their rendezvous with the playoffs, beginning with the Wings on Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena?
And the Islanders seemed comfortably placed. But the loss of their best goalie Jaroslav Halak for six weeks beginning March 8 is proving difficult to remedy, and both replacements are struggling.
There are some other mathematical possibilities, the Lightning and Rangers could self-destruct and figure into the Wings’ position in the standings. But it seems unlikely.
One thing is certain: If the Red Wings win their last three games against the Flyers, Bruins and Rangers, they make the playoffs for a 25th consecutive season. But in their inconsistent season, with parity among teams affecting all in the NHL, running the table also seems unlikely.
Some things are looking better for the Wings entering the last week of the regular season.
Their power play has improved considerably, moving from 21st two weeks ago to 11th in the league at 19.3 percent.
The Red Wings are also playing better team defense. More attention to detail among the troops seems to be the key, and the Penguins 7-2 destruction of the Wings on March 26 at Joe Louis Arena might have provided some needed perspective. Jeff Blashill’s use of Alexey Marchenko, after a series of healthy scratches, and rationing the playing time of Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha, despite their demonstrated offensive ability, also was intended to improve team defense.
Moving the veteran playmaker Brad Richards into Mantha’s spot on the second line resulted in a goal and an assist for Richards in the 3-2 win against the Maple Leafs.
Jimmy Howard solidified a deteriorating situation in goal, and any move back to a struggling Petr Mrazek in the last three games seems like a clear gamble. But the Wings face back-to-back games Wednesday and Thursday when they play their two chief competitors for the playoffs, the Flyers and the Bruins
That often calls for using both goalies, as it has for the Red Wings except for twice this season.
“All that matters at this time is continuing to go out there trying to get points,” Howard said after knocking off Mike Babcock’s Leafs on Saturday.
The Red Wings have had to deal with some news on the side, too. Elliott Friedman of CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada” reported Saturday it is likely Pavel Datsyuk’s last season with the Red Wings. Datsyuk has said he would return to Russia to play before he retired, and next season is the last on his contract.
Meanwhile, the Bruins roller-coaster ride continues.
After not scoring 10 goals across five games during a recent, late-season losing streak that saw them plummet in the standings, they tallied six goals against the Blues on Friday.
In a matinee Sunday, though, the Bruins gave up six goals through the first half of the game against the Blackhawks before their four-goal rally fell short.
Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are scoring again, and Brad Marchand finally got his 36th. If that trio continues to tally and they can improve on some spotty defense in recent games, the Bruins could prove stubborn.
Meanwhile, the Penguins ran through the Flyers on Sunday. But Philadelphia came from nine points out of the playoffs in January, and if goalie Steve Mason continues to sparkle, they are unlikely to fall back.
The Wings’ next two games against the Flyers and Bruins will determine much about their season. And they can still determine their own fate after a disappointing 8-8 record since March 1 sharply tested their quest for playoff position and a deeper run than recent seasons.
Schedules for the teams in a fight for playoff spots in the Eastern Conference (w-wild card):
N.Y. ISLANDERS (93 points, first in wild card)
Home (three) — Tampa Bay (Monday), Buffalo (Saturday), Philadelphia (Sunday). Away (two) — Washington (Tuesday), N.Y. Rangers (Thursday)
DETROIT (91 points, third in Atlantic)
Home (one) — Philadelphia (Wednesday). Away (two) — Boston (Thursday), N.Y. Rangers (Saturday)
PHILADELPHIA (91 points, second in wild card)
Home (two) — Toronto (Thursday), Pittsburgh (Saturday). Away (two) — Detroit (Wednesday), N.Y. Islanders (Sunday)
BOSTON (90 points, fourth in Atlantic, third in wild card)
Home (three) — Carolina (Tuesday), Detroit (Thursday), Ottawa (Saturday)