The Buffalo Sabres aren't the only team coming off the NHL's Christmas break looking for quick answers to their problems. They'll see another one on the other side of the ice Tuesday night in Joe Louis Arena.
The Detroit Red Wings have made the Stanley Cup playoffs for 25 consecutive seasons but they have lots of work to do if they want to extend the longest active streak of any of the four major North American pro sports leagues to 26.
The Red Wings are seventh in the Atlantic Division with 34 points, two points ahead of the last-place Sabres. Both teams are chasing third-place Boston for the final playoff slot. The Bruins have 40 points and have a huge task slated for Tuesday at Columbus, which is on a franchise-record 12-game winning streak.
As per the NHL's collective bargaining agreement, all teams are off Dec. 24-26 from games, practices and travel, so neither skated Monday. NHL rosters have been frozen for the holidays since Dec. 19 and that freeze expires at 11:59 p.m. Monday, so teams will be again free to make moves prior to their next game.
The Sabres, who have slid into the division basement by going 0-2-2 in their last four games, are scheduled to fly to Detroit Tuesday morning and head right to the rink for their 11:30 a.m. morning skate. It will be their second-last game at Joe Louis, which closes after this season. Buffalo plays its final game there on March 20.
The Red Wings have not been giving the NHL's oldest arena a fine sendoff in its 37th and final season. They are just 7-9-3 at home this year, compared to 8-6-1 on the road. Detroit is 15-15-4 overall and coming off Friday's 4-3 shootout win at Florida that got the Wings back to even through 34 games.
"We seem to have a good game and then not be very good,” Detroit forward and former Sabres sniper Thomas Vanek said after that victory. “It’s good to have a pretty good game, two points, take a few days off mentally and then we’ve got to put a run together. We all know that.”
The Red Wings had an abysmal four-game stretch earlier this month where they went 0-3-1 and scored just three goals. But they hit Christmas winners of two of their last three games, with 11 goals in that stretch. While the Sabres' 1-5 shootout record has been a huge source of consternation, the Wings have stayed afloat in part because of their NHL-best 5-0 record in the skills competition. That includes their 2-1 win over Buffalo Nov. 23 in KeyBank Center.
Vanek, a free-agent signee over the summer, has just five goals but is tied for second on the team with 18 points. He had one of the Wings' two shootout goals Friday. Former Buffalo captain Steve Ott, another summer addition, has two goals and an assist in 30 games for the Wings. He grew up as a Detroit fan living across the border in Windsor, Ont.
The Wings won't be home much in the aftermath of Christmas as Tuesday's game will be the last time they see the Joe until Jan. 14. They start a seven-game road trip Thursday in Ottawa and then head to Toronto for Sunday's Centennial Classic outdoors at BMO Field before the trip moves out west.
Detroit's goaltending situation bears watching. Jimmy Howard has gone down for 4-6 weeks with a sprained knee and that's a huge loss because he had excellent numbers (1.96 goals-against average, .934 save percentage) despite a 5-7-1 record. Coach Jeff Blashill played a hunch at Florida by going with rookie Jared Coreau over struggling Petr Mrazek (9-7-3, but 3.06/.899).
Coreau, just up from Grand Rapids, got his first NHL win while playing in his second NHL game. He blanked the Panthers over the final 34½ minutes of play, counting overtime, and stopped two of three in the shootout. The Red Wings trailed, 3-1, through two periods and rallied to get a point for the first time this season when down after 40 minutes. They had been 0-10.
The special teams battle in this one should be interesting. The Red Wings are last in the NHL on the power play at 11.9 percent. They have one power-play goal in their last 11 games and are a stunning 0 for 26 in their last six.
The Sabres, meanwhile, continue to struggle on the penalty kill as they are last in the NHL at just 74.3 percent. They are 28th on the road at 72.9 percent.