Mrazek, Wings keep pushing toward top of Eastern Conference

Petr Mrazek stopped 34 shots and won his third game in three starts since Jimmy Howard went down with a slight tear in his groin.

Jose Juarez

One of the oldest — and truest — axioms in sports suggests it’s not which opponents you’re playing, but when you’re playing them.

So it was Saturday night for a Red Wings team returning home after a six-game, 16-day road trip, and on a bit of a roll. Their opponent: an even hotter team that rode a five-game win streak to the top of the NHL standings.

Those standings aren’t lying. Nashville is a legitimate contender for a long run in the playoffs this spring. For years a tenacious defensive club, the Predators are now dangerous at the other end of the rink since first-year coach Peter Laviolette unshackled the offense. They have a perennial Norris Trophy candidate on the blue line in Shea Weber, a bona fide Calder Trophy finalist in rookie center Filip Forsberg, and the best goalie in the game in Pekka Rinne, a contender not only for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best in goal, but for the Hart Trophy as the most valuable player. And a lot of other good players.

But Rinne was unavailable against the Wings; he’s out with a sprained knee. Worse, the Preds were playing tired on the road, as hockey people are prone to say. This was their second game in as many nights. On Friday, in what must have been an emotional game for the Predators, they found a way to score two goals in the final five minutes of the game for a 4-3 win over visiting Washington, another red-hot team coached by Barry Trotz. He was behind the bench in Nashville for the first 17 years of its membership in the NHL, and got a standing ovation on his return Friday night.

Saturday night’s result was almost predictable. The Predators were no match for a Detroit team that continues to prove its place in the standings is not an illusion, either. After a workmanlike 5-2 victory in front of another packed house at The Joe, the Wings pulled within spitting distance of Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay, just three points ahead of Detroit’s 59. But Detroit has two games in hand.

In a game that at times looked more like trick-shot billiards — each team banked in a goal off an opponent’s derriere — the Wings appeared to dominate because they have what few other NHL teams seem to have — enormous depth in goal. While they raced to an early lead against the tired Nashville legs, scoring three goals on their first four shots to chase Nashville backup Carter Hutton, Petr Mrazek was solid again at the other end. He stopped 34 shots and won his third game in three starts since Jimmy Howard went down with a slight tear in his groin.

Mrazek is technically the No. 3 goalie in Detroit’s system. At least that’s how the season began, with Howard and Jonas Gustavsson in Detroit and Mrazek starting in Grand Rapids. But Gustavsson has been out since early November with a shoulder injury. All Mrazek has done since his recall is post an 8-3-1 record with a goals-against just north of 2.10 and a save percentage above .920.

If he keeps playing at this rate, he’ll join Forsberg and Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad among the leading contenders for rookie of the year honors. He continues to play with poise, confidence and the unqualified support of his teammates, who seem to love playing for him. And he’ll start again Sunday when lowly Buffalo visits.

As nice as the victory was — especially in a first game back home after a long road trip when teams typically are a bit sluggish — the Wings weren’t pulling any muscles patting themselves on the back.

"Look, they played last night," coach Mike Babcock said. "It was an emotional game against Washington, another team playing very well with Trotz there, and the emotion in that game probably didn’t help them tonight."

And jumping to a quick lead — 3-0 early and 5-1 after two periods — doubtless made it easier for Mrazek, who was peppered with shots from a team that refused to fold.

"It’s like being on the mound in baseball," Babcock said. "When they give you run support, it’s a lot easier to be great."

The Wings have two more opportunities to be great in front of Mrazek before the NHL breaks for its All-Star game, and they could be sitting pretty if they don’t squander them. Buffalo is last among the 16 teams in the Eastern Conference. Minnesota, which sits a disappointing 12th place in the 14-team Western Conference, visits Tuesday.

This team is feeling awfully good about itself, and rightly so. In other words, this is a good time to be playing struggling opponents.