It’s easy to second-guess coaching decisions after the fact, begins many post-loss sports articles, but it was immediately clear that the Detroit Red Wings, and their recently redeemed goalie, Jimmy Howard, were not 100% last night in Boston. The direct evidence? Surrendering two goals on four Bruin shots in the first 2:44 of the game. The circumstantial evidence? A hard-fought win the night before in a game that did not start until after 8:00, delaying the team’s arrival at its Boston hotel until 2:45 yesterday morning. Howard looked sluggish, and his teammates weren’t able to bail him out. Their backs against the wall, Boston hardly let up, eventually claiming a 5-2 win.
The Howard redemption story is a nice and good one, and, if the Red Wings are able to clinch a twenty-fifth-consecutive playoff berth, there’s little reason to believe it can’t continue into the postseason, but hockey, as much as any sport, is a sucker for narratives like these, and they can color strategic decisions. Petr Mrazek, once the backup goaltender, overtook Howard this year to win the starting position away from him. Mrazek recently began to struggle, though, and Howard came on strong in relief. While having a goaltender competition late in the season isn’t ideal, the truth is that both Mrazek (early) and Howard (late) proved themselves capable of the job. Yes, a win last night was the “easiest” way for Detroit to secure a playoff spot, but it wasn’t the only way, and first-year Coach Jeff Blashill had to know that a loss in Boston would place even more importance on the team’s final game, on Saturday afternoon in Manhattan. In any other scenario, one assumes that Blashill would’ve started his “backup” goalie– now, Mrazek– on the second night of a home/road back-to-back like the one the Wings faced over the last two days. Instead, it looks like he got greedy, or at least gambled, and tried to ride the supposedly hot hand of Howard to the most direct path to the postseason, or however many other cliches and colloquialisms you want to scrunch in here. His team, and especially his goalie, needed a rest but didn’t get one, and now they’re in somewhat more of a pinch than they were twenty-four hours ago.
Following yesterday’s results– a Detroit loss, a Boston win, and a Philadelphia overtime loss– the Red Wings, Bruins, and Flyers remain in the hunt for the East’s final two playoff positions. The two losing teams are somewhat worse off than they were before last night’s games. For Detroit, the most immediate consequence is that second place in the Atlantic Division, which was available to them before last night, now is off the table. Here are the updated Eastern Conference standings:
Detroit and Boston now are tied with ninety-three points, but Detroit holds the first tiebreaker by virtue of having one more total win (ROW). Philadelphia is a point back but has two games remaining, while Detroit and Boston only have one game left apiece.
The contenders’ remaining schedules likely favor Boston, which faces the already-eliminated Ottawa Senators at the same time Detroit meets the New York Rangers. The Rangers have clinched a playoff position, but they’re competing with the Islanders for seeding. The Flyers host the (superior) Penguins Saturday, followed by a road game against the Islanders on Sunday.
Last night’s loss was costly for Detroit, but they still have a nearly seventy-five-percent chance of making the playoffs, per Sports Club Stats. Merely winning out no longer guarantees a postseason appearance, however; they must beat the Rangers in regulation or overtime– a shootout win over New York, alone, is not enough. Anything other than that, though, and Detroit is going to need some help. A kind soul over at Winging It In Motown has compiled a chart of these contingent scenarios:
The good news is that the Wings’ relative margin for error is wider than the Bruins’ and Flyers’, so Detroit fans are going to need to become fans of the Senators, Penguins (I know), and Islanders this weekend. Not ideal, but here we are. Hold on tight, and, if you want something to watch between now and tomorrow afternoon, this should do the trick.