DETROIT — During the playoffs, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock likes to say that your best players have to be your best players.
While that’s true, it’s also true that great teams have to have great role players — and the Wings have always had them.
From the Grind Line of Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty/Joey Kocur to players like Drew Miller, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader, the role players have always managed to step up when they were needed.
This season, goaltender Jimmy Howard has arguably been the Wings’ best and most consistent player. Unfortunately, he is out for the time being with a broken index finger.
Howard had started every home game for the Wings until Wednesday night when recently recalled Joey MacDonald was in net.
MacDonald did a fine job filling in last season when Chris Osgood missed time, going 5-5 with a .917 save percentage and 2.58 goals-against average in 15 games.
On Wednesday, MacDonald saved 15 of 17 shots in a 4-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, extending the Wings’ home winning streak to a franchise high 18 games, two shy of the league record.
“Last year, getting the opportunity to come up and watch Jimmy play every night, when I got the opportunity I thought I did a pretty good job of giving the team an opportunity to win,” MacDonald said. “Same coming in on Friday night, getting thrown in right away, you don’t think about it, you just play. The more you play, the more confidence you get.”
MacDonald, who turned 32 on Tuesday, had a chance to sign a contract with teams in Russia, but instead returned to the Wings, knowing he would spend most of his time with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins unless there was an injury.
With the way MacDonald played in relief in Edmonton and at home against the Oilers, he might have earned more playing time than Ty Conklin, who was signed in the offseason to back up Howard.
But MacDonald wouldn’t have had a chance at the win without the efforts of some of the Wings’ less-celebrated players.
After Johan Franzen got the Wings on the board in the first, Cory Emmerton gave them a 2-0 lead early in the second when he drove to the net and backhanded a rebound past Oilers goalie Nikolai Khabibulin.
Emmerton was happy to make amends after taking a penalty in the first.
“Anytime you can help on the scoresheet other than for penalties,” Emmerton said. “It’s nice to see those get killed off and go right back to work and playing your game.”
But no one has been able to stop the hottest player in the NHL lately, Edmonton’s Sam Gagner, who had four goals and four assists Feb. 2 against the Chicago Blackhawks. He came in with six goals and seven assists in his last four games.
Gagner scored on a breakaway in the second, then tied the game at 2-2 in the third on a rebound.
“You don’t score goals for no reason in this league,” Gagner’s line-mate Taylor Hall said. “Especially against a team like Detroit is definitely huge for him. I’m sure he’s got a lot of confidence.”
But while the Oilers have Gagner, the Wings have … Drew Miller.
That’s right, Miller, who has been on a bit of a roll himself lately. He saw the puck lying in the crease after Khabibulin made a save and poked it in for the eventual game-winner at 10:46 of the third.
“I thought Helmer (Darren Helm) put it in, so I was going to celebrate with him, but I saw it was laying there,” Miller said. “It was one of those right-place-at-the-right-time. We’ll definitely take it. It was a big goal and a game-winner, so you want to help out your team any way you can.”
Miller now has a career-best 11 goals and four in his last five games.
“Drew has scored some pretty big goals lately it seems like,” Emmerton said. “Tonight was no different. He has deserved the extra ice time. It’s nice to see him take advantage of it.”
With Danny Cleary having to miss the third period because of a recurrence of a knee injury, perhaps aggravated by a hit by Ben Eager, having Emmerton, Miller and MacDonald step up was just what the Wings needed after a long trip.
“That’s what we need as the season goes on,” said Justin Abdelkader, who had two assists. “We’re all chipping in. That’s what makes championship teams. That’s what we’re striving to be.”
Cleary to miss some time
Cleary, who was expected to miss some time because of his knee issue, played the first two periods against the Oilers, but likely will miss the rest of this week’s games.
“Danny Cleary’s gonna get an injection (Thursday) or whatever and will be out a few days anyway,” Babcock said.