It seems strange to contemplate the mighty Detroit Red Wings only own one four-game winning streak with the end of March in sight, but that's where the team finds itself as it plays in Edmonton on Friday night.
The Red Wings (34-23-12) can match their longest winning streak of the season with a victory against the Oilers. Detroit is just one point ahead of Calgary for the final Western Conference playoff spot heading in, although they have a game in hand on the Flames.
Detroit is flirting with its first non-playoff season since 1989-90 and will undoubtedly finish with fewer than 48 wins for the first time in more than a decade, but if the Wings qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament, they will likely be a trendy upset pick for many hockey observers.
That's because in addition to the wealth of playoff experience on the club — highlighted by a championship in 2008 and runner-up status last year — the Red Wings stack up well against the teams in the West they would most likely face in the first round.
Detroit is 2-0-1 against each of San Jose and Chicago. The Wings are 2-1 against Vancouver, their opponent Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada to complete their Western Canada road trip (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m. PT).
While they currently sit eighth, Detroit has the fourth-fewest regulation losses in the West.
The toll of three straight long playoff runs (the Wings reached the conference final in 2006-07) hit some Detroit players this season, but the injury roll eased drastically in January and February.
Forwards Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen have re-energized the power play while Niklas Kronwall's last three outings may have been his best since he returned to the lineup in late January.
The NHL careers of Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves, meanwhile, have been resuscitated in energy roles with the Wings. They have combined for 18 goals and 36 points.
The "X" factor if they make the playoffs will be Jimmy Howard. The goaltender is making a bid to be a Calder Trophy finalist as top rookie, but it remains to be seen if he can maintain his cool, collected ways when the pressure gets ratcheted up.
If he can't, veteran Chris Osgood would no doubt relish yet another opportunity to come to Detroit's playoff rescue after a mediocre regular season. Osgood hasn't seen the net since Jan. 27.
Weak opposition to close regular season
It's foolhardy to forecast results based on the remaining schedule, but Detroit plays seven of 13 against non-playoff teams to end the season. The ledger includes the Oilers twice, Columbus three times, plus St. Louis and Minnesota.
A pair of games against Nashville, who they currently trail by five points, will help determine if Detroit can climb in the standings. The Wings finish the season against Chicago.
Detroit enjoyed a rare three-day break between games against Alberta teams, and they decamped to Kelowna, B.C. They collected donations for the Kelowna Community Food Bank through open practices at Prospera Place.
The Red Wings prevailed 2-1 in an intense game in Calgary on Monday for their third consecutive win. Holmstrom set up in his office in front of the opposition goalie and tipped in a shot for the winner late in the third, with Pavel Datsyuk scoring the earlier goal on a power play.
Howard shone with 22 saves in net as Detroit avenged a loss the previous week to the Flames, their only defeat in the last six games.
The Red Wings should be motivated for the game at Rexall Place, as Edmonton beat them twice in five weeks when they were mired in their early-season funk.
Detroit is likely to face Edmonton rookie goalie Devan Dubnyk, who fell to 0-8-2 with a loss to Minnesota this week.
Upsetting the Wings would be quite a first win for the 23-year-old netminder.
Defenceman Ryan Whitney said Thursday there's no reason for the last-place Oilers to not fight tooth and nail.
"The way I look at it, Detroit's in a dogfight for the eighth spot," Whitney told The Canadian Press. "They come in here and play the 30th-place team and lose, imagine how good we'd feel. You take little victories like that as a sign you want to be here, you want to be playing. This is our chance to be in a playoff game. I think you have to look at it like that."
The Oilers lost for the 13th consecutive time at Xcel Energy Center in their last outing, losing 4-2 to the Wild.
Marc Pouliot and Ryan Potulny scored for the last-place Oilers, who finished a four-game road trip without a win. Potulny has 15 goals in 53 games this season, tying him with Sam Gagner and Gilbert Brule in goals.
Dustin Penner leads Edmonton with 26 goals.
The Oilers scored nine times in the two wins over Detroit this season, but players since traded or injured accounted for six of those goals.
One of them is Patrick O'Sullivan, who will likely miss a fourth straight game due to a finger injury.
Dubnyk would be the third Edmonton goalie to face the Wings, with Nikolai Khabibulin and Jeff Deslauriers winning the previous meetings.
Edmonton (21-42-7) is beginning a four-game homestand against the Red Wings. The Oilers return Sunday against San Jose.