What comes after 24? For the Detroit Red Wings, the answer is looking more and more like: one.
One, as in the number of years without a playoff berth.
With 16 games to play in the regular schedule, the Wings' historic postseason streak of 24 consecutive appearances is in real jeopardy. They are on the sunny side of the ledger for the moment, but only just. After dropping three straight, including a dismal effort on Tuesday night in Columbus, only two points separate them from the hard-charging Philadelphia Flyers, who are 5-1-0 in their past six and hold a game in hand in the pursuit for the East's second wild card berth.
Things have been trending the wrong way for awhile, but that 5–3 loss to the Blue Jackets was particularly troubling. Beat writer Ansar Khan called it Detroit's "worst performance of the season" and that assessment isn't hard to swallow. The Wings stumbled out of the gate, getting outshot 16-4 in the first period before penalty troubles and some soft defensive play ended any chance that backup Jimmy Howard would steal a win.
Coach Jeff Blashill expressed concerns about the team's defense ahead of that game. "I don't think our D has been as good lately as they were at different points of the year," he said of his decision to shake up Detroit's pairs. "Sometimes that's guys not quite playing up to their potential, sometimes that's the pairings themselves. As a coach your job is to try to help them as much as you can and sometimes that means making some changes and see if the changes help."
They didn't. Despite rearranging the deck chairs, the same old coverage issues came back to haunt the Wings. So did a lack of discipline. Niklas Kronwall, the leader of the group, took a bad penalty for the third consecutive game and the Wings allowed a power play goal as a result. Luke Glendening twice put his team down by two men, setting the stage for two more Columbus power play goals.
The problems, of course, run deeper than that. The power play is in the tank. It ranks 22nd in the NHL (17.3%), having gone three-for-33 during the past 10 games (9%). The offense ranks 22nd in goals scored at 2.50 per game and has been trending down since Jan. 1. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, the team's veteran stars, have combined for just 25 goals between them, only two have which have come since February 18. And there's a troubling lack of urgency that haunts this team despite assurances to the contrary.
But the biggest concern is the play of goaltender Petr Mrazek.
The 23-year-old wrenched the starting job away from Howard early this season, and played so well for so long that he was fairly being mentioned as a legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate. But with the season heading into crunch time, Mrazek's game has noticeably slipped. He's posted a save percentage above .905 in just two of his past eight appearances—and that's a low bar in a league where the average is .916.
His decline is even more pronounced against quality competition. In his past four starts against opponents in playoff position, Mrazek has allowed five goals three times and was pulled six minutes into the fourth after allowing two on five shots. Granted, two of those beatings came at the hands of the defending champion Blackhawks, but it's not the losses that matter. It's that he failed to even keep his team within striking distance.
Slumps are inevitable for a young goalie, but good teams find a way to compensate when they arise. The Wings—who dined on Mrazek's excellence so many nights this season—might not be good enough to take care of themselves.
Their best chance to rectify that perception comes over the next four games. It's a critical stretch, featuring three at home—Winnipeg on Thursday, the Rangers on Saturday, and Toronto on Sunday—before they travel to Philadelphia next Tuesday for a showdown against the Flyers.
If that one's not a must-win, it's the next closest thing.
Kronwall recognizes the challenge.
"Listen, it's all in your own hands," he told the team's website. "We dictate where we go from here. It's just about finding a way to win and get points every night. That's really what it comes down to."
We'll see if they're up to it.
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The numbers game
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• Elliotte Friedman wonders if Alex Galchenyuk is auditioning for a trade, if Mike Hoffman is done in Ottawa, and if the NCAA will consider changing admission rules in this week's 30 Thoughts column.
• GM Steve Yzerman says the door is open for Jonathan Drouin to return to Tampa Bay, but what if coach Jon Cooper slams it shut?
• No one is rooting harder for the NHL to return to Quebec than ... Homer Simpson?
• Hall of Famer Doug Gilmour writes a letter to his younger self and shares some great stories about the late Pat Burns.