The Detroit Red Wings can at least theoretically “play spoiler” when they face the Toronto Maple Leafs this evening (7:00 PM EDT on FSD/CBC/97.1 FM). That term can be used more in the sense of giving the playoff-bound Leafs a rare home loss as opposed to truly denting Toronto’s playoff hopes or playoff positioning.
With the Red Wings’ last wisps of playoff hopes extinguished, the Wings can help prevent the Leafs from climbing the Eastern Conference standings, where the Leafs sit 3rd in the Atlantic Division. The 44-23-and-7 Leafs have won 5 of their past 6 games, including a 5-2 decision over the Nashville Predators on Thursday (in which Auston Matthews returned from injury).
As the Toronto Sun’s Terry Koshan notes, Toronto plays 6 of their final 8 regular season games at home, so their goal is to “get on a roll” with the playoffs two weeks away:
There’s no reason to believe the Leafs will do anything but win the majority of their last eight games of the 2017-18 regular season. Six are at the Air Canada Centre — where the Leafs have won 12 in a row and have a sparkling 25-8-2 record — and six are against teams that are out of the playoff picture.
“It’s a good opportunity for us to go on a little home run,” [Morgan] Rielly said after the Leafs beat the Predators on Thursday night. “We have an opportunity to get on a little bit of a roll going into the playoffs, which I think is important. You always want to go in with a little bit of momentum and it’s an opportunity to get comfortable at home. We have some practice days coming up as well, so that works to our advantage.”
The Leafs shouldn’t have much of a problem setting a franchise record for most victories, considering they’re one short of tying the mark of 45, accomplished three times.
And with 16 points on the table, they stand a good shot of setting a new team record for most points in a season. The Leafs have 95 points, requiring nine to get to 104. The high-water mark of 103 was established under the late Pat Quinn in 2003-04. At the least, the Leafs easily should hit 100 points for only the fourth time in club history.
Furthermore, their next win at the ACC will tie the team record of 26 home victories, set in 2005-06. The Leafs have not lost at home since Jan. 22, when they were beaten by the Colorado Avalanche.
“That’s important travel-wise and rest-wise and we’ll do a good job of that,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said of the final home stretch. “We have to get better, we understand that.”
The Leafs, 14-4-2 in their past 20 games, play host to the Wings on Saturday before the worst team in the National Hockey League — the Buffalo Sabres — comes in on Monday, the first of two visits in the span of one week.
Neither Toronto nor Detroit practiced on Friday, with the Leafs simply taking a rest day and the Red Wings set to open 3 games to be played over the course of only 4 nights tonight (Detroit also plays in Montreal on Monday and at home against Pittsburgh on Tuesday).
The Maple Leafs are 2-1-0 against the Red Wings this season. They beat the Red Wings 3-2 on Feb. 18 in Detroit in their most recent meeting.
Toronto is 25-8-2 at home this season and has won 12 straight at the ACC. The Maple Leafs, however, are pursuing loftier goals and hope their past two games against two of the top teams in the NHL provided some valuable experience for the playoffs.
“Obviously, that game in Tampa [a 4-3 loss on Tuesday] wasn’t how we wanted to finish it,” said Toronto center Mitch Marner, who had a goal and assist in Nashville. “But that’s a learning lesson for us and important to have, especially now into the playoffs.
“Like I said, we want to start the third period with a pushback and I think we started how we wanted to. Going forward, we’ve got to make sure we just keep the pedal down all three periods no matter what happens.”
The Red Wings will be without defenseman Mike Green for the rest of the season. He is scheduled to have surgery on his cervical spine on April 5.
He missed seven games from Feb. 17 to Feb. 28, returned to the lineup March 2 at Winnipeg and aggravated the injury during practice on Wednesday at Little Caesars Arena. He had eight goals and 25 assists in 65 games this season.
Now that the Red Wings are eliminated, they might be expected to give more ice time to younger players, but Blashill offered a caution.
“There’s a fine line there,” Blashill said. “You have to make sure that you compete and work. If you don’t compete and work, you’re not getting ice time. That’s one. Two, I’m asking our guys to go out and work as hard and compete as hard as incredibly possible. If you want to take one of those guys’ jobs, then you have to play better than them. If I start playing guys because of their age, you lose 100 percent credibility and you don’t teach lessons of earned ice.”
For the Red Wings, as STATS’ preview and the Detroit News’s Ted Kulfan note, the Wings have a bit of a balance to teach their younger players regarding earning their ice time:
“I’m asking our guys to go out and work as hard and compete as hard as possible,” Blashill said. “You want to take one of those guys’ jobs, then you have to play better than them. That’s just the reality of it. What Svech has to do on a shift-by-shift basis is to be better than one of these guys: Nyquist, Bert, Mantha, Helm, Abdelkader, Double-A. Those are the guys playing wing, right now. So, he’s got to beat one of those guys out.”
It is important to players because time on ice is a valued commodity, in some ways, their most important achievement. When their roles get bigger, they understand they are trusted and that they have arrived.
Amid the chronic losing of a franchise that is missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in 35 years, some urge a brisker pace, quicker looks at players in Grand Rapids and more playing time in Detroit. But the Red Wings think haste can make too much waste of development.
“There’s no question it is a learning experience,” Blashill said, about players entering the NHL. “Learning the time you have (amid the brisker pace of NHL games) and getting comfortable. Confidence is a huge thing. It’s hard to have confidence when you first step in the league, especially when you are not getting tons of opportunity.
“You’ve got to find a way,” he said. “I can also tell you the difference between the guys who make it and the guys who don’t is mental toughness. You’ve got to find a way of staying mentally tough and keep deriving your confidence from within.
“But, if you get to a point in this league where you believe in your heart of hearts that you belong, boy, great things can happen,” Blashill said. “So the more games a young guy like builds, where he believes that he totally belongs, inside, the better it will be for him.”
As the Detroit News’s Gregg Krupa noted, the Wings have less of a challenge in terms of sorting out their defensemen’s responsibilities absent Mike Green:
Grand Rapids is playing three games against Iowa and Chicago this weekend in a continuing battle for the AHL playoffs, and those games are considered important developmental opportunities for prospects like Joe Hicketts and Filip Hronek, and perhaps others, who figure to be the first defensemen recalled from the Griffins.
Xavier Ouellet played 9:13 against the Capitals in eight fewer shifts than the next least-used of the six defensemen, Niklas Kronwall.
It has been a disappointing season for Ouellet, who long ago saw Nick Jensen surge by him and who, like Jakub Kindl and Ryan Sproul before him, served a long apprenticeship in Grand Rapids with the hope of making it in Detroit.
Green’s injury is also an opportunity for Trevor Daley to pick up some power-play time. Daley, who has demonstrated offensive punch in his career, got 1:42 time on ice on the power play Thursday, second to Nicklas Kronwall’s 2:59.
A little more playing time in an offensive role will likely be fun for Daley, as he returns to his hometown, Toronto, to play Saturday.
However, as Hockeybuzz’s Bob Duff notes, the Wings’ lack of scoring has doomed them this season:
Zetterberg and defenseman Niklas Kronwall were the only current Wings who were alive the last time the club missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons in 1981-82 and 1982-83.
Analyzing why this team so often came up short, the numbers don’t lie.
The Wings are the close but no cigar team of the NHL, dropping 23 one-goal games, second only to the 24 one-goal setbacks suffered by the Ottawa Senators. They are 0-3 when shutout, 0-15-3 when scoring one goal and 4-11-3 when tallying twice. That adds up to 4-29-6 and 14 of a possible 78 points in those games. Thursday’s loss to the Capitals was a microcosm of the Red Wings’ season.
“It’s been like this too many times – we haven’t been able to score when we’ve had pretty good efforts,” Detroit coach Jeff Blashill said. “We obviously had a pretty good effort. I don’t think we gave much up. I thought both teams were fairly good defensively. I don’t feel there was tons of chances both ways, but we’ve got to find a way to score.”
Asked to assess what needs to change to bring the Wings back to respectability, Zetterberg pulled no punches.
“A lot of things I think,” Zetterberg said. “We all know we are in a transition here with some younger players coming in. All the teams go through it eventually. It’s hard to go after or trade or sign a really good player nowadays. You have to get them through your own system.
“So we’ve got to get lucky in the draft. We have a lot of picks (an NHL-high 11 in the 2018 entry draft). And then we’ve just got to try to keep the traditions that are high here. Keep working hard, do the right things and eventually it will turn around.”
Also of Red Wings-related note: in the “Future Events” category, first, from the Red Wings…
— Detroit Red Wings (@DetroitRedWings) March 23, 2018
And, from the Toledo Blade:
An upcoming hockey game between the Toledo Police Hockey team and the Detroit Red Wings alumni team hopes to raise funds for the Family and Child Abuse Prevention Center.
The game is scheduled for 7 p.m. April 21 at Sylvania Tam-O-Shanter, 7060 W. Sylvania Ave. April is National Children Abuse Prevention month.
The Toledo Police Department has investigated two infant homicides so far in 2018.
“This event is a great opportunity to raise awareness for National Child Abuse Prevention month,” Toledo Police Chief George Kral said in a media release. “Any officer will tell you that the worst days in police work are when a child has been harmed. I am proud of my TPD hockey players for organizing this event and for their work with the community both on and off the ice.”
Tickets will be available at the door and cost $10 for adults and $5 for children.