Detroit — The Red Wings returned Monday from the All-Star break in a peculiar position.
For most of the last 25 seasons, the talk at this point is usually about refining and making sure you’re playing your best for the playoffs.
Monday, it was simply about somehow making the playoffs.
The Red Wings trail Boston (for an automatic playoff spot in the Atlantic Division) and Philadelphia (for a wild card spot) each by seven points.
Only tonight’s opponent, New Jersey, sits lower than the Red Wings in the Eastern Conference standings — each has 49 points, but the Red Wings also would have to climb over six teams to get into a playoff spot.
Bottom line: This isn’t going to be easy. But the tightness of the race, and the fact the Red Wings have shown the ability (though briefly) to get hot, give coach Jeff Blashill reason for second-half optimism.
“The league is so close, you see a lot of teams go on runs and those teams aren’t necessarily a whole lot better than any other team,” Blashill said after Monday night’s practice. “Everybody is so close. We’re sitting in a position where if we get hot and we play great hockey, we can go on a run.
“I don’t think it’s any secret we need to go on some runs here. There’s no question about it.”
The Red Wings went into the break 3-1-3 — having won three consecutive games, then losing three overtime games, then heading into the break with a demoralizing 4-0 loss against Toronto.
In the next 10 games only tonight’s opponent, New Jersey, is below the Red Wings in the overall standings.
“Let’s be honest, we’re all watching the standings,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “There’s no doubt about that. But we have to stay positive. Stay positive and keep grinding away,
“It’s going to be the guys in this room who are going to do it.”
What gives Kronwall the belief this particular Red Wings team can still make a late run?
“We’re a pretty good team when we play the right way but we have to do it,” Kronwall said.
One reason Blashill believes the post All-Star break portion of the schedule can be different is because of the power play.
Let’s face it, the Red Wings can’t get much worse on it.
The Red Wings have been bad for most of the season, and currently rank last, 30th, with a 11.1 percent success rate.
“If our power play was way better the first half of the year, we’d have more wins and be in a little better position,” Blashill said. “That doesn’t mean 10 more wins, but let’s say three or four more wins. That’s a huge difference.
“It’s been well documented, it’s (the power play) not just been bad, it’s been real bad. But with that said, I look at that as an opportunity for our group…(to) get improvement and find a way to execute at that.”
The Red Wings are getting close to full health.
Goalie Jimmy Howard (sprained knee) practiced Monday, as did defenseman Brendan Smith (knee) and forward Dylan Larkin (upper body).
Larkin is expected to play tonight after missing the last two games before the break.
Howard will play a game or two in Grand Rapids soon before returning to the NHL, while Smith certainly looks capable of returning by next week.
This season, it’s different. Instead of talk of the playoffs, there’s talk of the Red Wings being sellers at the Feb. 28 trade deadline.
“You can’t listen to it, you have to go out there and do your job,” Howard said. “It’s part of the business. Whatever happens, happens, you go out there and control what you can control and for me that’s stopping pucks for the guys.
“There’s no reason why we couldn’t (go on a long win streak). We’ve done it once already this season (six-gane streak) at the beginning of the year. We need everything to come together.”
“We have our work cut out. We have to find a way, get out there, and get two points every single night.”
Monday’s was the first full scale practice Howard went through since getting hurt Dec. 20 in Tampa.
“The first 10 minutes was kind of rough on the lungs but after that it settled down,” Howard said.
“I feel good. I’m excited to be out there with the guys.”
Said Blashill: “Jimmy taking part in practice, that’s another step in the right direction. You can do lots of stuff with (goaltending coach) Jeff Salajko but it’s hard when guys are moving all over the place. It may not be quite the same situation. It was good for him to practice.”
Judging from Monday’s practice, it appeared goalie Jared Coreau would get the start against the Devils, with Petr Mrazek backing Coreau.
Larkin said he’s been cleared to play. To activate Larkin, the Red Wings would likely sent forward Drew Miller to Grand Rapids.
Miller cleared waivers last week when Kronwall was activated off the injured list.
… Blashill, incidentally, didn’t escape to anywhere warm. Instead, he coached at some of his son’s practices over the weekend.
“All we did was run around with hockey all over the place,” Blashill said. “My wife has to do it every weekend. It was fun.”
… Frans Nielsen was excused from Monday’s practice, having just returned from the All-Star Game in Los Angeles.
Tough road ahead
In their next 10 games, the Red Wings only play one team (New Jersey) that is below them in the NHL's overall standings.
Tuesday: New Jersey
Friday: N.Y. Islanders
Saturday: at Nashville
Feb. 7: Columbus
Feb. 9: at Washington
Feb. 11: at Columbus
Feb. 12: at Minnesota
Feb. 15: St. Louis
Feb. 18: Washington
Feb. 19: at Pittsburgh
Facing long odds
Only New Jersey has odds worse than Detroit’s for winning the Stanley Cup, according to VegasInsider.com. (There are no odds on Colorado and Arizona, who have the worst records in the NHL.)
Minnesota Wild, 13-2
Washington Capitals, 13-2
Chicago Blackhawks, 7-1
Columbus Blue Jackets, 8-1
Pittsburgh Penguins, 8-1
Montreal Canadiens, 12-1
New York Rangers, 12-1
San Jose Sharks, 15-1
Anaheim Ducks, 18-1
Edmonton Oilers, 18-1
St. Louis Blues, 20-1
Nashville Predators, 25-1
Los Angeles Kings, 30-1
Tampa Bay Lightning, 30-1
Toronto Maple Leafs, 30-1
Calgary Flames, 35-1
Ottawa Senators, 35-1
Boston Bruins, 40-1
Dallas Stars, 40-1
Philadelphia Flyers, 40-1
Florida Panthers, 50-1
Vancouver Canucks, 50-1
Winnipeg Jets, 65-1
Buffalo Sabres, 100-1
Carolina Hurricanes, 100-1
Detroit Red Wings, 100-1
New York Islanders, 100-1
New Jersey Devils, 150-1
Devils at Red Wings
Faceoff: Tuesday, 7:30 p.m, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit
Outlook: New Jersey (20-21-9, 49 points) got off to a good start but has cooled off considerably, and lost its last two games before the break. …LW Taylor Hall (11 goals, 31 points) has been a productive acquisition.