Gave: Wings’ view from top of division is precarious

If the Wings don't find a way to play better, the battle for supremacy in the Atlantic Division won't be much fun at all.

Paul Sancya

The Red Wings should enjoy the view from atop the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference standings while it lasts — because if they continue to play like they did in a sloppy, 5-4 win Tuesday night at Florida they won’t stay there long.

Especially considering their opponents in the next two games.

The victory helped Detroit to leapfrog past Tampa Bay — a 4-2 loser at Carolina on Tuesday, to capture first place in the Atlantic. Detroit has 65 points to Tampa’s 64, though Detroit has a game in hand. The Wings play at Tampa on Thursday.

The win also boosted the Wings into a first-place tie in the conference with the New York Islanders, a 4-1 winner over the visiting New York Rangers. The Islanders visit Joe Louis Arena on Saturday — the lone home game in a six-game stretch for Detroit. The Islanders have a game in hand on Detroit.

So the Wings control their destiny to an extent. But they won’t if they can’t regain the kind of discipline and work ethic that got them to this far.

Detroit built a three-goal lead after two periods against a struggling Florida team that came in on a four-game losing streak — then had to hold on for dear life after the Panthers clawed their way to within a goal. Three terrific saves by Petr Mrazek helped to preserve the victory in a six-game win streak that has exposed all manner of sins.

Detroit’s defense is suddenly allowing far too many shots. Mrazek was under siege; he faced 41 shots that resulted in at least 15 scoring chances. Penalty killing, once a bedrock strength, allowed three goals against a Panthers team that had not scored more than one goal with the extra man all season. It was the fifth straight game in which the Wings have allowed a power play goal.

A suddenly potent offense has helped to camouflage those transgressions. The Wings have scored 21 goals in their last four games, and they needed them. They’ve allowed four goals in each of their last three games. That’s the kind of defense gets teams bounced in the first round of the playoffs.

In other words, this young team that has provided so many thrills through the first four months of this season still has a lot to learn, regardless of what the standings suggest.

This game was not without a few heartwarming highlights, however. The Wings got four goals from their third and fourth lines. Luke Glendening, promoted to the wing on the third line after centering the fourth line most of the season, scored twice. And they were nifty, goal-scorer’s goals from in close. He suddenly has six for the season. Glendening played on a line with Riley Sheahan (two assists) and Stephen Weiss, a former Florida Panther, had a goal and two assists. That line carried the Wings all night. Drew Miller and Henrik Zetterberg had the other Detroit goals.

Florida, which was in the hunt for a playoff spot before this five-game skid, beat Detroit twice at the Joe earlier this season. The Panthers are in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, 15 points back of Detroit. So the Wings have at least built a nice cushion, which they may well need as points get harder to come by down the stretch.

"We didn’t make it pretty there at the end, but we found a way to win," said Justin Abdelkader. "We have to be better, bear down on the penalty kill a little more. We’ll watch the video and correct some mistakes."

Coach Mike Babcock wasn’t surprised about a game that was more shoddy than it was competitive until the final 4:30, when Florida drew to within a goal.

"It’s kind of what we expected," Babcock said. "We knew it would be a little ugly, and it was. Obviously, we spent too much time in the penalty box and didn’t kill penalties very good. And we didn’t get on the power play enough.

"But we found a way to win and put ourselves in a good spot."

Babcock also singled out Mrazek for the big saves when those two points hung in the balance.

"He looked like the rest of us tonight — not great," the coach said. "But in the end we have to give the kid credit. He made some great saves down the stretch. When the game is on the line, he finds a way to get the win."

So now it’s on to Tampa Bay, where former Wings captain Steve Yzerman has been building a powerhouse since he assumed control of the club as general manager nearly five years ago.

"Tampa is a great team. It’s almost like a new rivalry for us, with Stevie there," Abdelkader said. "They’ve got a heck of a team. It’s going to be a fun time."

Perhaps. But if the Wings don’t find a way to play better, the battle for supremacy in the Atlantic Division won’t be much fun at all.