Despite a plethora of injuries to key players and some dismal play on home ice early in the season, the Detroit Red Wings are still very much alive in the playoff race.
Their recent performances at Joe Louis Arena should only make them feel better.
Detroit can match a season high with its fourth straight win Sunday night when it hosts the Minnesota Wild in the back end of a home-and-home.
For a good portion of this season, it looked like this would be the year the Red Wings (33-24-13) finally failed to qualify for the playoffs. Injuries forced star forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg out for long stretches and the team struggled on home ice, winning only five of its first 20 games there (5-9-6).
But despite the injuries, Detroit managed to stay close to the pack in the Eastern Conference and stands a good chance at extending its 22-season streak of reaching the postseason. That run is the fifth-longest in NHL history and the longest active streak in the four major professional sports.
The Red Wings helped themselves with a third straight victory Saturday, winning 3-2 in Minnesota on Gustav Nyquist’s third-period goal. Jimmy Howard made 28 saves and Brendan Smith and David Legwand scored on the power play to help Detroit end a four-game road skid.
Nyquist leads the NHL with 16 goals in 22 games since Jan. 20 and has five during a four-game goal streak.
”The young guys are playing more and more and starting to believe in themselves more and more,” Howard said. ”It’s a fun time of year because you’re seeing what we have, and the future looks bright.”
Also boosting Howard’s confidence is his team’s recent play at home, where the Red Wings have gone 8-0-2 since their last regulation loss Jan. 20.
"I think over the course of the year we’ve realized more and more how we have to play to have success," defenseman Niklas Kronwall told the team’s official website. "In saying that, we have a different team now than we did in the beginning of the year, and I think that forces us to play a little differently too."
Joining Datsyuk (knee) and Zetterberg (back) on the sidelines Saturday were defensemen Jonathan Ericsson (finger) and Danny DeKeyser (shoulder) and forwards Joakim Andersson (foot), Darren Helm (concussion), Tomas Jurco (ribs), Stephen Weiss (hernia) and Mikael Samuelsson (shoulder).
Only Helm is possible to return Sunday.
"A bunch of good skates, cleared by the doctor, did my concussion test, I guess you could call it, did well on that and I feel good and ready to go," Helm said.
Minnesota (36-24-11) remains in possession of a wild card in the West despite Saturday’s loss which dropped it to 2-3-4 since the trade deadline. Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle scored for the Wild, but the top line of Mikael Granlund, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville was held without a point for the first time in eight games.
”We can’t keep letting these points go to waste. We’ve got to come into every game and play a solid 60 minutes,” Coyle said, ”It’s coming down to the wire here, and we’ve got to make the most of it.”
Koivu’s goal was his first in 14 games but gave him three goals and five assists during a six-game point streak against Detroit.
The Red Wings had earned at least one point in 13 consecutive home games against the Wild with a 10-0-3 stretch before a 4-2 loss in the most recent meeting March 20, 2013.