Early in the season, it seemed like Detroit and six other teams would be competing for second place in the Atlantic Division.
As Montreal struggles, the Red Wings now find themselves in the division’s driver’s seat heading into Monday night’s trip to Minnesota, but it’ll take some sustained road success to continue the upward trajectory.
Detroit (18-10-7) returned from the Christmas break with Saturday’s 3-2 win in Nashville to begin a three-game trip against the Central Division, moving it into a tie atop the Atlantic with the Canadiens. It’s playing nine of its first 10 after Christmas on the road.
Gritty play in front of the net helped on Riley Sheahan’s rebound goal on a second-period power play, and coach Jeff Blashill is fine with that as an identity. It was Sheahan’s second goal in as many games after he scored three in his first 33.
"I think our net front has been really, really good," said Blashill, whose team is 6-1-2 on the road since dropping three of its first four. "If you look back at lots of the goals and even some of the near misses, we’ve had great net front. It’s a big part of hockey today and certainly a big part of what we want to do."
They’d now like for it to translate into consecutive wins for the first time since winning three straight to begin December, going 3-2-3 since with seven one-goal, overtime or shootout games.
Detroit has also had a rash of close contests against Minnesota, the latest being the Red Wings’ 3-2 eight-round shootout win in St. Paul on April 4. The teams have played four games without more than a goal separating them over the previous two seasons with Detroit going 3-0-1, though both teams have scored 12 goals. Minnesota’s Zach Parise has five goals in the last three meetings, while Detroit’s Gustav Nyquist has six and an assist on a five-game point streak in the series.
The Wild (18-10-6) are completing a four-game homestand trying to salvage a split after Saturday’s 3-1 loss to Pittsburgh. It was their third regulation loss in four games after a 6-0-2 span.
"The last four or five games we’ve got another level that we have to get to and a lot of individuals I would say through that time have to bring a little bit more," said coach Mike Yeo, whose team has scored eight goals in the last four after tallying 13 on a preceding three-game winning streak. "This is a time of year where do you fall asleep and lose ground or do you make a push and gain ground?"
That’ll depend some on Devan Dubnyk, who has lost his last three games with a 3.43 goals-against average and .903 save percentage. He’s also 1-1-2 with a 3.22 GAA and .881 save percentage in his last five games against the Red Wings.
Jimmy Howard also has some room for improvement after being replaced in Tuesday’s 4-3 home loss to New Jersey. The veteran gave up three goals on six shots in less than a period of work before being pulled but didn’t take the loss. He’s been busy lately with 39.3 shots per game faced in the three preceding games, posting a 3.19 GAA and .911 save percentage in the last four starts.
Howard has a 2.94 GAA and .879 save percentage over a 3-1-1 span against the Wild.
Detroit’s Dylan Larkin sat out Saturday with an upper-body injury after scoring in his previous two games.