It’s now or next year for Red Wings

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Red Wings have played better lately. Unfortunately, it includes only two consecutive wins, and inconsistency remains a hallmark of their season.

But if the Red Wings can continue to get several things right more often than not in two critical games, at home against the Flyers tonight and on the road against the Bruins on Thursday, they stand a decent chance of making the playoffs.

Defensive play in their zone, puck possession, the efficiency of exits from their zone, “owning” the opponent’s crease and consistent goaltending are facets of their performance trending positively. If that continues, the Wings usually play well enough to beat most teams, at home or on the road.

Games as consequential as playing their chief rivals for the playoffs in the last week of the season require simplifying execution and attention to detail.

Teams that master essential things tend to win the big ones.

Defense in front of their goaltender is essential, and it was disconcerting to hear so late in the season communication might be the issue. But after the daunting 7-2 loss to the Penguins on March 26, Niklas Kronwall said it was.

“Well, I think one of the areas is: We’re not talking,” Kronwall said. “We’re not helping each other out, so the guy who gets the puck knows what to do.”

At the next practice, coach Jeff Blashill cited issues of awareness.

“I thought for the most part we’ve just got to clean up some mental errors,” Blashill said as he reflected on giving up too many goals in March when flagging performances put the Wings playoff pursuit in peril.

“We’ve just got to make sure that it’s every puck on every play, and we’re sharp in our decision making every single time.”

Sounds simple. But, for this roster, it has been a taller order than in most recent seasons, and it might be true the mental fatigue of the long schedule affected them last month.

Cut down on turnovers

But now, they need to play like it is April. Stinginess with the puck will help.

Some of the turnovers, as Kronwall pointed after the Penguins loss, proceed from the defensemen not helping each other.

Regardless, on the attack, giveaways by forwards or defensemen, they are fatal. And a lack of possession in the offensive zone has been an issue much of the season, limiting scoring chances and creating offensive opportunities for opponents.

Five keys to victory for Wings vs. Flyers

“The goals they get are too easy,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said after the Pittsburgh game, before the Wings performance began to improve. “We got to be more careful with the puck in key areas.”

The Flyers offense is big, quick and a force down low on top of the goaltenders. The Bruins offense recently is alternately warm and cold, and would benefit greatly from generosity with the puck.

The Red Wings will want to avoid helping either club.

Two things have encouraged their offense recently. They are executing easier exits from their zone a bit more often, and when they get to the other end, their ability to get above the defenders toward the goal has established a greater crease presence.

Their vaunted transition game is not the weapon it was several seasons ago. But better exits more readily launch the attack, especially five-on-five.

And at a time on the schedule when so-called dirty goals are at a premium, often determining the victor, traffic in front offensively is essential. The Red Wings cite more players and pucks towards the net as the key for the significant improvement on the power play the past seven games.

“I think we’ve had a lot of success, it’s really going in for us,” Gustav Nyquist said. “And it’s the right time of the season to have a power play going. It’s a good sign.”

Blashill said that while success is breeding success on the power play, “I’d also say we’ve done a better job of finding ways to deliver the puck to the net and getting people to the net.”

Against the Flyers, controlling the crease in the offensive zone is a case of doing unto them before they do it unto you because of the ability of their big forwards — Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, R.J. Umberger, Chris Vandevelde and Jakub Voracek — to muscle into position directly in front of the net.

It might be easier to accomplish with the Flyers down to six defensemen on the roster, now that Andrew MacDonald (upper body) has joined Michael Del Zotto (wrist) among the injured. MacDonald replaced Del Zotto, who is lost for the season, when he left the game against the Penguins Sunday in the third period after a heavy body-check into the boards.

The Bruins also have been easier to challenge down low after dispatching some personnel along the blue line in recent seasons, and Dennis Seidenberg was expected to miss the Hurricanes game Tuesday, replaced by Ameircan Hockey League defenseman Colin Miller.

Howard likely to start

The Red Wings will need their better defense and offense the next two games. Despite improvement, going into play Tuesday, the Wings (-12) and Flyers (-5) were the only teams in playoff position with a negative goal differential.

In any game, goaltending plays a major role. But it seems especially true later in the season, in the playoffs and in big games.

Petr Mrazek started all five games against the Bruins and Flyers so far. Blashill declined to name his goaltender, but it is likely Howard.

The Wings have won one of five games against the two teams this season, defeating the Bruins in Detroit, 6-5, on in a wild affair on St. Valentine’s Day. Three of the other four games were one-goal losses, and the Bruins won 3-1 in mid-November.

As well as Howard has played recently, and given Mrazek’s cold spell and Howard’s ample experience this time of year, it would not be a big surprise if Howard starts both games.

His great strength is positioning and remaining square to the puck. He is greatly assisted when the defense is executing well in front of him.

“You’ve just got to go out there and play,” Howard said of the mental preparation and approach to playing in big games.

“We’ve been playing real good the last several games, so just got to go out there and try to get the job done.”

The Flyers will bring their physicality as close to him as they can, Howard said.

Meanwhile, the Bruins can offer a tough venue for the visitors.

“It’s been the same feeling for several years, now, playing until the final day of the regular season,” Howard said.

“They’re going to be very intense games and we’re definitely looking forward to it.”

Flyers at Red Wings

Faceoff: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit

TV/radio: NBCSN/97.1

Outlook: Both teams have 91 points as they try to secure an Eastern Conference playoff spot. ... The Flyers are 2-0 against the Red Wings.

Stretch run

Schedule for the teams in a fight for playoff spots in the Eastern Conference (w-wild card):

6 DETROIT(91 POINTS, THREE GAMES)

Home (one) — Philadelphia (tonight). Away (two) — Boston (Thursday), N.Y. Rangers (Saturday)

w-N.Y. ISLANDERS (95 POINTS, THREE GAMES)

Home (two) — Buffalo (Saturday), Philadelphia (Sunday). Away (one) —N.Y. Rangers (Thursday)

w-PHILADELPHIA(91 POINTS, FOUR GAMES)

Home (two) — Toronto (Thursday), Pittsburgh (Saturday). Away (two) — Detroit (tonight), N.Y. Islanders (Sunday)

9 BOSTON (90 POINTS, TWO GAMES)

Home (two) — Detroit (Thursday), Ottawa (Saturday).