Flyers-Red Wings Preview
If the schedule makers had an ideal vision for matchups in the season's final week, reality may line up closely.
With three scenarios in play for the Detroit Red Wings, they will try to gain an edge on another hopeful in the Eastern Conference when the Philadelphia Flyers visit Wednesday night.
The Red Wings (40-28-11) can secure a top-three Atlantic Division seed, a wild-card spot or end up watching the playoffs from home, depending on how they fare in their last three games - all against teams in the hunt.
The high-pressure final week starts against Philadelphia (39-26-13) before the Red Wings close the season on the road against Boston on Thursday and the New York Rangers on Saturday. The Flyers, Bruins and Red Wings are in a tight battle for the final wild card, with Detroit and Philadelphia tied at 91 points.
The Red Wings would like to avoid that fall-back plan, however, by edging the Bruins for the final Atlantic spot. Either way, Detroit's last back-to-back set will determine whether the club can extend its streak of 24 postseason appearances - the longest in major North American professional sports.
"I'd say two of the biggest opportunities is the way I'd word it," coach Jeff Blashill told the team's official website. "But we've known that for a while, that it looks like that's the case."
Things seemed bleak after Detroit surrendered 17 goals in a trio of regulation losses during a five-game stretch, but Jimmy Howard earned back-to-back 3-2 wins over Minnesota and Toronto over the weekend.
Detroit is 21-13-6 at home and has won 27 one-goal games.
''The mindset is Philly on Wednesday,'' captain Henrik Zetterberg said. ''We knew that we had it in our own hands for the last week.''
Howard served as the backup to Petr Mrazek for most of the season but seems to have regained the starting role, at least for now. He struggled to a 2.91 goals-against average through his first 30 appearances but has a 2.12 GAA in his last four - much better than Mrazek's 4.69 over his past five.
Howard is expected to be in goal again to try and end Philadelphia's dominance in this series. The Flyers have taken the first two meetings this season for three in a row and six of seven, including two of three in Detroit.
Philadelphia had a three-game winning streak snapped Sunday with a 6-2 loss at Pittsburgh as Steve Mason made his ninth consecutive start and second in as many days.
Mason, who had gone 5-1-1 with a 1.67 GAA in his previous seven games, has been relied on heavily down the stretch with Michal Neuvirth out for at least the rest of the regular season with a lower-body injury. Anthony Stolarz has yet to make his NHL debut and recently signed veteran Ray Emery hasn't played in the league since last April.
Still, Philadelphia is 13-4-2 in its last 19 games.
''Every game has been critical for us over the last two months,'' coach Dave Hakstol said. ''Do they get bigger as we get into the final week of the season? You could say that, but every game we have left is critical.''