As of March 26, the Detroit Red Wings are in a four-way tie for a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
They have basically no chance of moving higher up the standings, as Tampa Bay—the third-place team in the Atlantic Division—has a seven-point lead on them while New Jersey sits five points back of the Red Wings. It’s essentially a four-team dogfight for two spots:
|Eastern Conference Wild Card Race|
The second tiebreaker is head-to-head record, and the Red Wings have two wins to the Maple Leafs’ one with one head-to-head game left to play, so they’re looking good there, too.
Ultimately, though, those tiebreakers won’t matter if the Red Wings finish behind Washington or Toronto in total points. Getting stronger in a few different areas would go a long way toward ensuring that doesn’t happen.
Detroit has been awfully banged up, particularly of late, and the news is still bad on some fronts.
Team captain Henrik Zetterberg announced on the team’s official site that he’d like to play again this year, but likely wouldn’t be around until the postseason. Meanwhile, the Detroit Free Press’s Helene St. James notes that there’s still no timetable for Pavel Datsyuk's return.
However, Bill Roose of DetroitRedWings.com reports that there has been some positive news:
Darren Helm, Joakim Andersson, and now Tomas Jurco.
For the third time in five days the Red Wings announced that a previously injured player will return to the lineup. And more help is on the horizon as Justin Abdelkader said he’ll be back by next Wednesday at the latest.
They aren’t stars, but all four of the players listed have averaged 13-plus minutes of ice time up front this season and adding a quartet of heavily used forwards to the lineup in less than a week is big news for any team.
Jimmy Howard hasn’t looked much like Jimmy Howard this season, and if he could fix that, it would go a long way for the Red Wings. Boasting a career 0.917 save percentage, Howard is sitting at the 0.911 mark and has been particularly bad of late:
Howard was critiqued heavily early this year, but managed to come out of his funk and deliver some solid goaltending after he came back from a December knee injury.
That hasn’t lasted. He’s back where he was in the early part of the season, when he had a 12-game run with just a single win.
It’s been costly for Detroit. At his career average, Howard would have allowed eight fewer goals than he actually has in his 45 games this season. Given the thin margin between making the playoffs and missing them, that could be the difference.
He has to find a way to get back to where he’s been in the past.
Detroit could do itself a huge favour with a regulation win in Toronto on Saturday. The Maple Leafs play in Philadelphia on Friday night while the Red Wings will be fresh, having last played Thursday in Detroit.
This is a golden opportunity to gain two points while holding off a tired Leafs team. It’s the most important game left on the Red Wings’ schedule.
The Red Wings’ special teams haven’t been dominant, but they really haven’t been bad either given the team’s injuries.
The big drop-off from last season to this year has come at even strength, a place where Detroit is traditionally dominant. When we look at the percentage of unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick) Detroit has taken at five-on-five in close-score situations, we see how the team has fallen this year:
|Red Wings' Fenwick Percentage|
The Red Wings simply don’t outshoot their opposition the way they once did, and with fall-off in Howard’s play, that’s really hurt them.
Some of this is doubtless related to injuries, but the simple fact is that Detroit’s game is predicated on being a dominant puck-possession team and controlling it in the offensive zone, which shows up in a higher number of shot attempts. That simply hasn’t happened this year, though the team has had some stretches of strong play:
Detroit is reasonably well-positioned to pull off another postseason appearance, in no small part thanks to the cooperation of the Maple Leafs, a team that has lost six consecutive games.
If the Red Wings can shore up their play at even strength, get decent goaltending from Howard and get some effective players back into the lineup, they should be okay.
Above all, they need to win their game in Toronto on Saturday.