Red Wings-Maple Leafs Preview
The Detroit Red Wings just got a win they desperately needed, though there's still more work to do to extend the NHL's longest active playoff streak.
With a challenging final stretch ahead, they'll need to seize an opportunity in Saturday night's matchup with the rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs.
Detroit's sense of extreme urgency was evident Friday against Minnesota, in which it started strong in all three periods en route to a critical 3-2 win. The Red Wings outshot the Wild 11-5 in the first, built a 2-0 lead early in the second and received a pivotal goal from Riley Sheahan 2:08 into the third.
Despite the desired result, Detroit (39-28-11) still faces an uphill climb to avoid its first postseason absence since 1990. It's a point back of Boston for third in the Atlantic Division with four games left, three of which come on the road.
The Red Wings visit Boston on Thursday after hosting Philadelphia, tied with Detroit for eighth in the East but owning two games in hand, on Wednesday.
''For the last few years, that's the way it's been, we've had to battle our way into the playoffs,'' said forward Gustav Nyquist, who had two assists Friday. ''We know we control our own fate. As long as we keep winning, we're good. We have to empty our tanks. We know there's nothing to save it for.''
With nothing at stake save a chance to increase its odds of winning this year's draft lottery, Toronto (28-38-11) theoretically presents a reprieve on Detroit's remaining schedule. The Maple Leafs have continued to play hard under former Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, though, winning six of 10 with an offense that's been extremely hit or miss over that stretch.
Toronto has scored at least four goals in each of its last five victories and totaled three in its past four losses. After routing Atlantic Division leader Florida 5-2 on the road Tuesday behind Nazem Kadri's hat trick, the Leafs were badly outplayed by also-ran Buffalo in Thursday's 4-1 defeat.
One constant during Toronto's inconsistent run has been the steady play of Jonathan Bernier. Sent to the minors in December after a string of rough outings, the goaltender has yielded two goals or less in winning four of his last six starts.
Bernier began that sequence with a 38-save effort in a 1-0 win at Detroit on March 13. He had 32 against the Panthers.
"Obviously he's played at a high level this last while," Babcock said. "Any time you go through adversity and you fight through it, it gives you a better opportunity and better base (be successful) again."
Detroit's goaltending situation has been more muddled of late. Jimmy Howard won for the fourth time in five starts with 20 saves against Minnesota and is making a bid to reclaim the No. 1 job from the struggling Petr Mrazek.
Mrazek owns a 4.69 goals-against average over his last five appearances and was pulled in Tuesday's 4-3 loss at Montreal after permitting two goals on seven shots.
Mrazek has stopped 58 of 60 shots in two starts against Toronto this season, compiling 32 saves in a 2-1 overtime win at Air Canada Centre on Nov. 6. Howard had 22 in a 4-0 home victory over the Leafs on Oct. 9.
Detroit has scored a power-play goal in a season-high seven straight and is 10 of 22 over that span.