A friend of mine asked me today which team I thought would seize the final spot in the Eastern Conference. I told him my money was on the Detroit Red Wings.
Not that I expect the Wings to do damage when they get there. That they couldn’t easily dispatch the downtrodden Montreal Canadiens after taking a 4-0 lead Thursday certainly speaks to what kind of trouble they’ll face against a top team in the East.
They were outscored 3-0 by the Canadiens in the first eight minutes of the third period and things sure looked dicey in the final minutes, but the Wings still managed to get the job done.
No matter how close it gets from here to the end of the season, I believe Detroit’s quest for a 25th consecutive playoff appearance is enough motivation to get them there. The men leading their charge — Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall — have the experience to make it so.
You have to look at what Detroit’s competition is doing.
The Philadelphia Flyers, who entered Thusday’s action with a game in hand and the same amount of points as the Wings in the standings (83), had a 2-0 lead in the final minutes of Tuesday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. They ended up losing 3-2 in the shootout.
Without goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who underwent season-ending surgery after recording 28 of Philadelphia’s 35 wins this season, the Flyers scored two goals in 19 seconds to steal away a 36th win Thursday — this one over the Colorado Avalanche.
The New York Islanders, who have two games in hand and started the night up four points on the Wings, have accumulated just 10 of 20 points available to them over their last 10 games.
The Boston Bruins, who held a three-point advantage over Detroit before playing Thursday, dropped their fifth consecutive game — this one a 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers.
When you look at Detroit’s schedule, starting off their three-game home stand with a win against Montreal was essential.
Perhaps even more essential were the contributions the Wings’ depth made Thursday. Forward Riley Sheahan scored two goals and Luke Glendening potted his seventh of the season.
Anthony Mantha, who was playing his hometown Canadiens in his fifth NHL game, scored his first NHL goal. It proved to be the winner.
How the Wings started the game, outshooting the Canadiens 32-18 through two periods, should inspire some much needed confidence. How they finished it, staving off Montreal’s momentum and getting some big saves from Petr Mrazek down the stretch, is something to build on.
Detroit hosts the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres before traveling to Montreal on March 29. They’ll close out the season with games against the Minnesota Wild, Toronto Maple Leafs, the Flyers, Bruins and New York Rangers.
Wins against the non-playoff teams will be critical for Detroit to gain an advantage.
Heaven forbid former head coach Mike Babcock and his Leafs throw a wrench in that plan. But even if they do, wins over the Flyers and Bruins would all but guarantee the Wings a punched ticket to the post-season.
They didn’t start off the night with the odds in their favour, and the win over Montreal didn’t tilt things their way.
But I can’t bet against Detroit. I won’t.