DETROIT — With three games left in the regular season, there’s no time for April fooling around for the Detroit Red Wings.
It’s not a lot of time for them to get their just-returning players up to playoff speed, claim fourth place in the Western Conference and straighten out their specialty teams but that’s the work at hand.
The Wings took a small step in that direction Sunday with a hard-fought 2-1 shootout victory over the Florida Panthers.
The two points gave the Wings 99 points and helped them leapfrog the idle Nashville Predators for fourth in the West. The Chicago Blackhawks had a chance to tie the Wings if they defeated Minnesota Sunday night.
“I thought we stayed with it throughout the game and hung in there to get the two points,” captain Nick Lidstrom said. “We needed points. We’re looking at the standings and we need points so it was a good win for us.”
Coming into the game, the Wings also needed better special teams. They were tied for 20th on the power play and ranked 22nd on the penalty kill.
Meanwhile, the Panthers had the ninth ranked power play.
The Wings had finally managed to tie the game at 1 at 5:30 of the third period when Jiri Hudler’s shot went off of John Madden’s stick and Ed Jovanovski’s skate past goaltender Scott Clemmensen.
Just eight seconds later, Kyle Quincey was called for a five-minute elbowing major for his hit that left former Wing Tomas Kopecky dazed, plus a game misconduct.
It helped that Valtteri Filppula forced Dmitry Kulikov to take a tripping penalty midway through the five minutes, but the overall result was one single shot on goal for the Panthers.
“Anytime a 5-on-3 or a five-minute (major) and you kill that off, I think the momentum swings a little bit the other way and I think that happened,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said.
The Wings also killed off three penalties in the first and one in the second.
“Our penalty kill was outstanding,” coach Mike Babcock said. “It was really good. It gave us an opportunity to win the game.
“I thought it was good game in particular for Howie (Jimmy Howard). When he has been away and injured like he has, you need to get a game that’s tight like that under your belt and win a game like that so good for him.”
Babcock said Ericsson, who played in his third game since missing 13 with a broken wrist, has been the key ingredient in better penalty kills of late.
“He gets the puck out every time he has it,” Babcock said. “He’s a huge man. He eats up space. I think he’s made a night and day difference, and having Howie back helps out, too.
Babcock has said that Howard would play all but one of the remaining three games.
After racking up 30 wins and earning an All-Star nod, Howard missed eight games with a broken index finger. Then he injured his groin and missed a few more games. He came back March 13 in Los Angeles but aggravated the groin a few games later and missed four more games.
More than any other player, Howard has to be at his best when the Wings start the playoffs.
“I felt a little bit better here tonight,” Howard said. “It’s a process. It’s just getting out there and playing.
“I felt a little bit more confident and a little bit more patient out there, which is a good sign for me.”
It was also a good sign that when the shootout came down to Howard having to make a save on former Blackhawk Kris Versteeg for the win, he did so confidently.
“I like them, I enjoy them. They’re a lot of fun,” Howard said. “It’s almost like when I stop them, it’s like scoring a goal for me.”
That is where the Wings are lacking at the moment — scoring goals. Leading scorer Johan Franzen played in his third game since missing five with back spasms. Pavel Datsyuk played in his eighth since returning from missing 11 because of knee surgery.
“I think it’s important just to get a game or two under their belt before the playoffs start,” Lidstrom said. “It’s gonna be another level.
“You’ve got to move up another level once the playoffs start. We all know that, too, so I think it’s important to get some games in before that.”
Babcock moved Gustav Nyquist back up to Datsyuk’s line with Franzen and shifted Todd Bertuzzi to Justin Abdelkader’s line with Danny Cleary to try to spark something.
“I’m just trying to get Pav some support,” Babcock said. “Gus is a good player. He makes things happen with the puck.
“I didn’t think neither line was dominant by any means, but like I said they’ve (Panthers) got good players and a good team.”
The Wings are trying to be that good team they were when they were clicking on all cylinders and racking up 23 straight home wins. It all comes down to the little things.
“I think just overall details in our game, just kind of paying attention to our details in the game, whether it’s playing well in our own zone or being effective on the specialty teams, just little things like that that we’re trying to improve on and just get better at,” Lidstrom said.
Quincey hit ramifications?
After receiving a game misconduct along with his five-minute elbowing major penalty, it’s likely that the league will take a look at the hit.
“He just elbowed me in the face,” Kopecky said. “I thought that was the kind of thing we want to eliminate from the game.”
Quincey, who played with Kopecky in Grand Rapids for a few years, said he was not trying to injure his former teammate.
“You don’t want to hurt anybody,” Quincey said. “I’m real happy he wasn’t hurt on the play. I just tried to make a good body check.
“I don’t know if he slipped, but I think he was falling when I went to hit him and his head hit me in the hip or like low here (forearm).”
Quincey said he had never received a major penalty in his career.
“Last thing I want to do is get suspended,” Quincey said. “It’s so important for me to play these last three games to just keep getting accustomed to systems and the guys.”
That call will be made by former Wing Brendan Shanahan, the league vice president of player safety.