MONTREAL — With the clock winding down on the 2016-17 regular season, the Detroit Red Wings find themselves in unfamiliar territory.
For the first time since the spring of 1990, the Original Six franchise will be spectators when the Stanley Cup playoffs get under way in a few weeks, snapping a 25-year postseason appearance streak — the longest active run of its kind in major league sports and the third longest in NHL history.
This year, the Red Wings (28-32-11) find themselves in the Atlantic Division basement and only three points out of the Eastern Conference cellar. The games now are essentially for pride and next season, the motivation they will have to rely on when they visit the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night at the Bell Centre.
Detroit arrives in Montreal off yet another setback, falling 2-1 to Buffalo on Monday night. It ended a modest two-game winning streak, dropping the Red Wings to 3-6-1 thus far in March.
While the season has been a tough one to take, there have been positives, including the play of goaltender Jimmy Howard since returning from a lengthy injury.
“Jimmy has been awesome since he came back,” Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin told the Detroit News. “He made some big saves for us. He’s been dialed in. We’re happy to see him come back from his injury. He works his butt off every day and you want to play for a guy like that.”
Howard is expected to get the nod against the Canadiens after Mrazek did so against the Sabres.
The Red Wings’ power play, which has spent the bulk of the season last in the NHL, showed signs of life with four goals on 10 opportunities — to climb out of the basement — in a pair of wins prior to being blanked on four opportunities in Monday’s loss.
“It didn’t go in, to be dead honest with you,” coach Jeff Blashill said after the game. “I don’t think it was any different in terms of execution. I thought there was certainly some execution.
“We created pucks around the cage a little bit. Maybe we weren’t as good at getting to some of those loose puck rebounds and there was some of those laying there. That’s where we’ve been real good lately.”
It wasn’t too long ago that Montreal (41-23-8) held a tenuous grip on a playoff berth. But a coaching change and a renewed confidence have the Canadiens a step closer to securing a postseason appearance — and the Atlantic Division title — after a weekend sweep of a back-to-back, home-and-home set against the Ottawa Senators.
“Obviously being first in the division is a big thing and an important part of (the wins against Ottawa) but clinching the playoffs is the most important part,” said center Tomas Plekanec, who scored his first goal in nearly two months, after Sunday’s win. “We’re obviously happy with those two wins and we’ve got to keep it going.”
Left-winger Paul Byron continued his recent hot streak in recording his sixth goal in the last eight games on Sunday to hit the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career. Only second player on the Canadiens roster to hit the mark this season after captain Max Pacioretty, the speedy winger has been on a roll since snapping out of an offensive funk with a last-second, game-winning goal on March 2.
“A lot of it’s mental, but with that confidence, it makes your body and that physical part come easy,” he said of goal-scoring slumps. “You have an extra jump in your game, your hands feel a little better, you feel like you have more poise with the puck. Sometimes in a slump, you’re overthinking things and when you get that confidence, everything seems to slow down, and that’s kind of what’s going on lately.”
While the secondary scoring has finally returned, Montreal is still looking for more offense from its power play. Defenseman Nathan Beaulieu connected with the man advantage in their most recent win, the Canadiens’ first power-play goal in March on 18 opportunities.