DETROIT – Just when it looked like their season might draw to a disappointing close, the Detroit Red Wings are starting to look like themselves again.
After beating the Nashville Predators 5-2 on Thursday night at Joe Louis Arena, another game they viewed as a "must win," the Red Wings edged even closer to securing a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 22nd straight season.
Detroit got goals from Valtteri Filppula, Johan Franzen, Patrick Eaves, Pavel Datsyuk and Justin Abdelkader, while goalie Jimmy Howard picked up his third straight win.
"We're playing like we should've been playing all year," said Franzen, who scored the first of three Detroit goals in the second period and added an assist for his seventh goal and 13th assist in the past 12 games. "We're coming back hard. We're tracking [the puck] like crazy out there, making it hard for the other teams and we're creating turnovers. That creates a lot of offense for us."
The only problem is the teams behind Detroit refuse to give up the chase.
The Columbus Blue Jackets stayed right on Detroit's heels in ninth place of the Western Conference by beating the Dallas Stars 3-1 on Thursday night to set up an exciting finish to the regular season on Saturday. The Blue Jackets (53 points) will host Nashville, while the Red Wings (54 points) – who moved into seventh past the idle Minnesota Wild (53 points) – will travel to Dallas aiming to assure a postseason spot with a win.
Dallas is now eliminated, while eighth-place Minnesota has two games left – at home against the Edmonton Oilers on Friday and against the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday at Pepsi Center.
"So far so good, [we've] got one more big one to go," Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "We'll take this for what it is. We put ourselves in a good situation. Hopefully we can take care of business on Saturday.''
That's exactly what they did in the first three games of this week, all played on home ice in four days. Detroit won all three, but even more impressive was how the games were decided. The Red Wings shut out the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday, decided a game in the third against the defending Cup champion Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday and blew out the Predators on Thursday – after falling behind 2-1 in a sloppy first period.
Detroit, which improved to 8-2-2 in the second of back-to-back games this season, took three penalties in the first period that led to Nashville power plays. Fisher scored at even strength 1:46 into the game to make it 1-0, while Smith turned one of the man advantages into a goal at 12:30 to make it 2-1 – putting home a rebound of his own shot.
That didn't sit well with the Red Wings, who scored three times in the second and got the goals from Franzen and Eaves in the first 3:41 of the period for a 3-2 lead.
"No one was happy with the first period," Franzen said. "We were spending way too much time in the penalty box. We came out strong, got a good start and then kept rolling."
Datsyuk also scored with 47 seconds left in the second to make it 4-2, while Filppula scored his 100th career goal off a pretty pass from Franzen to knot it 1-1 early in the first. Filppula also won 13 of the 16 faceoffs he took.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz started Mason over star Pekka Rinne – who got the night off after making his 42nd start of the season on Tuesday. Trotz defended the decision after an outcry by Blue Jackets fans upon learning the news late Thursday morning.
"[Rinne] has played a lot of games for us," Trotz said. "I put Chris in there. Chris has been a trooper for us, for our organization a couple of times now, and he deserves to play. He's a capable goaltender, so that's why we played him."
Howard will get a chance for a fourth straight win on Saturday in another playoff-like situation. Detroit started this week in a precarious position, just outside the postseason picture, but now is down to a game that feels like it's all-or-nothing.
"I think we've gotten a lot better as a team," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "All you got to do is look back at our first segment [of games]. Our penalty-killing was 70 percent and our power play was 0-for. We just continued to get better as a team. That's what happens when you have young people, especially with no training camp. We got a long way to go, still got to find a way to get in the playoffs."