April 24, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall (55) and goalie Jimmy Howard (35) celebrate after the game against the Los Angeles Kings at Joe Louis Arena. Detroit won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Wings' Big Players Step Up Big: Red Wings 3 - Kings 1

It’s not hyperbole to suggest that the Detroit Red Wings game against the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday night was the most important regular season game at Joe Louis Arena in more than 20 years. Detroit entered the game trailing Columbus by a point for eighth place in the West and knowing that a loss would make things unnecessarily frantic down the stretch.

The Wings needed their top players to lead the way, and that’s exactly what happened. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg each had two points, while Jimmy Howard made 23 saves to defeat the Kings 3-1 and temporarily move Detroit back into playoff position.

The first half of the game had a “here we go again” feel for the Red Wings, who outshot the Kings 13-4 but found themselves repeatedly stymied by Jonathan Quick in a scoreless first period. That feeling got even worse when L.A. got on the scoreboard first, with Kyle Clifford banging home a loose puck amid a goal mouth scramble at 5:28 of the second.

Datsyuk responded just over five minutes later. After a surprisingly heads up cross-ice pass from Jonathan Ericsson, he deked Drew Doughty by going forehand to backhand in a tight area and beating Quick for his 14th goal of the season.

The checking line of Patrick Eaves, Jordin Tootoo and Cory Emmerton had been lively all night, and they fittingly combined for the eventual game-winner 5:42 into the final frame. After multiple shots by Eaves, he got one more chance from above the circle and saw it smartly deflected by Tootoo and into the back of the net.

Howard had to immediately make several tough saves to preserve the lead, and the Red Wings were able to tack on an insurance marker on the power play. Zetterberg played give-and-go down low with Datsyuk before his spinning backhand pass found Johan Franzen in perfect position right in front of the L.A. net with less than seven minutes left in regulation.

The Red Wings got an extended 5-on-3 opportunity in the closing minutes but could not cash in. Quick was pulled late, yet Howard only needed to make one more tough save to secure the victory.

For at least one night, Detroit moved back ahead of Columbus and just a point behind Minnesota in the very tight race for the final two Western Conference playoff spots. Thursday night could be just as critical, as the Blue Jackets travel to face the tenth-place Dallas Stars while the Red Wings get right back to work at the Joe against the Nashville Predators.

It’s very possible the race could go right down to the final day, but if the Wings’ leaders keep playing like they did on Wednesday, everything just may work itself out in Detroit’s favor.

The game was over when…

The Red Wings didn’t fold after outplaying the Kings early but surrendering the first goal. There was a brief span where they seemed to panic and go into “let’s just throw it on net” mode, but they largely kept playing the same game that gave them statistical advantages in most categories and it eventually paid off.

The unsung Red Wings hero was…

Normally I’d look to Eaves (who played like a man possessed) and Tootoo, but they are very much “sung” heroes after contributing to the game-winner. So the honor goes instead to Gustav Nyquist, who made multiple strong plays and was simply a bit unlucky not to end up with any points.

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Tags: Detroit Red Wings Henrik Zetterberg Jimmy Howard Los Angeles Kings Pavel Datsyuk

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