Red Wings fighting for final playoff spot

The Red Wings head into the last week of the regular season uncertain whether there will be a first week of the playoffs. It has been a tradition in Detroit for 21 straight seasons, and these Wings remain convinced they can extend it to 22.

Four games are left to get the job done: The Coyote scame to town Monday, to play a game that odds would indicate will be a Detroit loss. The first test back from a West Coast trip demands a reserve of energy few have. The Red Wings spent Sunday hopping three time zones, flying for five hours. Their body clocks are skewed, but no one wants to hear it.

“If you’re soft between your ears,” coach Mike Babcock said, “you can feel sorry for yourself. And if you’re not, you just get on with it and choose your attitude and get going.”

After the Coyotes comes a back-to-back Wednesday and Thursday set against the playoff-bound Kings and vacation-bound Predators. The season finale comes Saturday at Dallas. Three straight games at home ought to mean something good, except the Red Wings are just 10-7-4 at home — almost an exact duplication of their 10-9-4 road record — and they’re 1-3-2 at Joe Louis Arena since March 7.

Wherever they roam, wherever they play of late, scoring has been a problem. The Red Wings have 19 goals in their last 11 games, which goes a long way toward explaining why that stretch has yielded just nine points. Saturday night in Vancouver, Cory Emmerton, a fourth-line guy, had the only goal in a 2-1 shoot-out loss. After talking about all the good things the Wings did against the Canucks — starting well, sustaining pressure, playing a full game — Babcock was left condensing the one problem that has been so pervasive: “We’ve just got to score more goals.”

Babcock has juggled his lines to try to get better results: putting together Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, separating them. Either way, they deliver far more often than not. Both are right around a point-a-game performers. Johan Franzen had one of his best games of the season in Vancouver, playing tough and threatening around the net. He has eight points in the last nine games.

Damien Brunner has been in a long dry spell, but he fired the shot that Emmerton turned into a goal, and Brunner’s line with Joakim Andersson and Gustav Nyquist has been one of the team’s best recently.

Valtteri Filppula, meanwhile, isn’t giving the Red Wings any reason to invest money in an extension, contributing three points the past 16 games.

Niklas Kronwall repeated, “We’ve got to stick with the program,” three times Saturday night. “There is no time for us to feel sorry for ourselves,” he said. “We are where we’re at. We just have to dig down and try to stay positive, and play with a lot of desperation and urgency.”

The thing is, the Wings have stuck to a program — it’s just a program that looks very different from the past. Babcock has made it a point over the last couple of weeks to reiterate how consistent the Red Wings are: barely above .500, month after month.

The Wings aren’t an elite team. It has been hard for players to accept that. Within the room, some have wondered how they could have come out so flat last Wednesday in Calgary, against a team with so little bite. But the Red Wings have been consistent in playing down to their opponent’s level, which is why they’ve been beaten by the Flames, by the Blue Jackets, and last time around, by the Coyotes.

It’s all the more baffling because the Wings have shown plenty of times, including on Saturday, how well they can play: They dictated the pace against the Canucks. Cory Schneider had to make 17 saves in the third period alone. That’s three more shots than Jimmy Howard saw in 65 minutes.

This then is what the Red Wings cling to as they try to avoid elimination.

“I think we played a hell of a game,” Howard said in Vancouver. “If we keep playing that way down the stretch, I think we give ourselves a great chance. We can’t get frustrated.

“I still think we control our own destiny. It’s going to come down right to the wire. We’ve got to go home and take care of business.”

Had the Red Wings taken care of business earlier this season — both visits to Calgary, that last visit to Phoenix, when a rotten second period led to a loss — this week might not be so precarious. There might not be so much doubt whether there will be playoff hockey next week.


Posted by Tribune News Services

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