3 Keys for Red Wings Down the Stretch

The Detroit Red Wings won their third game in a row with a 2-1 overtime win against the New York Rangers on Wednesday. They are three points behind Tampa Bay with four games in hand and five points behind Montreal with three games in hand.

It’s a far cry from last year, when they were 28-21-12 and in fifth place in the Atlantic Division and out of the playoff race. However, nothing is guaranteed for the Red Wings. They are in a prime position to clinch their 24th consecutive playoff berth, but there are still 20 games left in the season, and a lot can change in the next month.

Here are three keys for the Red Wings as they head into the last month of the regular season.

Jimmy Howard Will Need to Steal Games

Howard was a bit rusty when he came back from his groin injury, but he has rebounded nicely with wins in his last two starts. Especially against the Rangers on Wednesday, he was in the zone and helped the Red Wings steal two points.

He faced 40 shots, stopping 39 of them, and the one goal he did allow, was a fluke goal that ricocheted off of Kyle Quincey’s skate and right to Dan Girardi.

Howard’s best save came late in the third period with the game tied at 1-1. Ryan McDonagh took a shot from the point that ricocheted off the glass, and Howard had to use his blocker to swat the puck out of the crease and preserve the tie game.

The Red Wings looked flat for most of the game against the Rangers, and when that happens, they’ll need to rely on Howard to give them a chance to win the game. Howard has shown he has the ability to steal games, and he’ll need to show that on a consistent basis.

Detroit will only go as far as Howard takes them, and if this is any indication as to what Howard’s performance will be down the stretch, Detroit will be in good hands.

New Acquisitions Will Have to Contribute

Marek Zidlicky finished his first game with the Red Wings on a high note Wednesday, as he had the game-winning overtime goal against the Rangers.

Obviously, we can’t expect him to score every game, but if he can’t score, he should be setting up scoring chances for his teammates. He didn’t start his career in Detroit on a good note, as the Rangers scored on the power play for the penalty Zidlicky took, but he was able to stay out of trouble for the rest of the game.

According to MLive.com’s Ansar Khan, Zidlicky will stay on the first power-play unit with Tomas Tatar, Pavel Datsyuk, Gustav Nyquist and Riley Sheahan.

Coach Mike Babcock is putting a lot of faith in his new right-handed defenseman, and he will need to answer the call if the Red Wings want to move up in the standings.

In addition to Zidlicky, Erik Cole will need to be the physical presence the Red Wings need. He had just one shot on goal in Wednesday’s game, but he was creating scoring chances for his linemates Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader and creating space for them.

Cole appeared happy to be suiting up for the red and white, as he had this to say to Pierre McGuire after the game.

“Such a great experience — this arena is so much fun to play in. Especially, when you are on the home team. I’ve had some tough losses in this building. Just always a buzz in this town, and it’s great to be a part of.”

Re-birth of Tomas Jurco

With Darren Helm out of the lineup with a strained oblique, Babcock moved Tomas Jurco to the top line with Datsyuk and Tatar. Jurco, for the most part, has been relegated to third- or fourth-line minutes, and he hasn’t produced nearly as well as he did last year.

He has 15 points in 50 games this year compared to 15 points in 36 games last year. However, on a line with Datsyuk and Tatar, he looked like a changed man. He was quick, he was getting to the open spaces of the ice and he was able to create quality scoring chances with his new linemates.

The Red Wings will need more of that from Jurco, and the rest of the kids, if they want to have sustained success for the rest of the regular season.

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Tom Mitsos is a Detroit Red Wings and Grand Rapids Griffins staff writer for The Hockey Writers. You can follow him on Twitter @tom_mitsos.