The Detroit Red Wings wrapped up yet another Central Division title the last time they took the ice, meaning the only remaining mystery is if they’ll wind up as the Western Conference’s second or third seed.
That same day, the Carolina Hurricanes may have blown their chance to join Detroit in the postseason.
An overtime loss to one of the two teams they’re chasing in the East has left the Hurricanes with little margin for error in their remaining three games, a stretch that begins with Wednesday night’s visit from the Red Wings.
Despite dealing with a slew of injuries, Detroit winning its ninth Central crown in 10 seasons has been a mere formality for weeks. After a rare second-place finish last season, the Red Wings officially reclaimed the title with Sunday’s 4-2 victory over Minnesota.
“We’re in a tough division with Nashville and Chicago, so it always matters to finish first,” defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said.
Detroit (46-23-10) is third in the West, trailing San Jose by one point for the second seed and home-ice advantage should those teams meet in the second round of the playoffs.
The ninth-place Hurricanes (38-30-11) would love to simply finish seventh or eighth in the East. They had a golden opportunity to pull even with Buffalo for seventh Sunday – and leapfrog the New York Rangers – when they hosted the Sabres.
Instead, Carolina lost 2-1 in overtime, then dropped five points behind the No. 7 Sabres, who beat Tampa Bay on Tuesday. That also leaves the Hurricanes four in back of No. 8 New York and with no room to stumble.
“The fact of the matter is, we’ve been feeling like this for the last two weeks, three weeks, that you had to win that game (against the Sabres),” coach Paul Maurice said. “There seems, in every one of these, you’re going to lose a game that feels like it’s the end, and you can’t let it be that way.”
Facing the Red Wings might not be the best way to bounce back. The teams haven’t played in 2010-11, but Carolina is 2-9-1 with a tie against them in the regular season dating to Jan. 21, 1999.
Plus, Detroit is 12-3-2 against the East, the NHL’s best interconference record.
Additionally, the Red Wings are getting healthy even though defenseman Niklas Kronwall (shoulder) will miss a third straight game Wednesday. Goaltender Jimmy Howard has been solid in consecutive wins after missing two games with a shoulder injury, and center Pavel Datsyuk – who has 58 points in 53 games – returned Sunday after sitting out seven games with a lower-body injury.
“He’s so important to our offense,” Lidstrom said. “But just having him back and for him to get a few games in before the playoffs is going to be key as well. And I’ll tell you, he looked good (Sunday).”
It’s Lidstrom, though, who’s been the offensive spark the last few times Detroit has faced Carolina. He has two goals – both on the power play – and two assists in leading the Red Wings to three consecutive victories. Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom have each scored twice.
The Hurricanes’ captain, meanwhile, hasn’t had much luck offensively versus Detroit. Eric Staal, who has four goals in his last six games overall, has been limited to two assists in six meetings with the Red Wings.
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