With neither the Detroit Red Wings nor the Buffalo Sabres playing postseason hockey next month, both teams are focusing on younger players who can help them down the road.
A pair of teams looking to post rare back-to-back wins square off when the Red Wings visit the league-worst Sabres on Thursday night.
Detroit (28-38-11) won for only the second time in 15 games after stunning the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2 on Tuesday.
Perhaps the happiest player on the Red Wings was undrafted defenseman Joe Hicketts as he collected two assists for his first NHL points in only his second career game.
“I thought as the game went on, I got better and that’s all I want to do,” said Hicketts, who at 5-foot-8 clearly doesn’t have the size of a prototypical blueliner. “Second period, I kind of knew what I wanted to do. … In the third, I thought I really brought what I wanted to bring.”
Niklas Kronwall, playing in his 869th game — all with the Red Wings — picked up his 400th career point and praised the young player from British Columbia.
“His energy is contagious, and I think that speaks for his character and the person that he is,” the 37-year-old Swede said.
Hicketts could be part of the next Red Wings core of young stars that includes center Dylan Larkin (team-high 56 points), and wingers Anthony Mantha (top goal scorer with 23) and Andreas Athanasiou (31 points).
Detroit, which has lost two of three to Buffalo this season including a 1-0 setback Oct. 24 in Western New York, is out of the playoffs in consecutive campaigns for the first time since 1982 and 1983.
“We’ve worked extremely hard, we’ve competed hard, we’ve actually played good hockey and haven’t won, and that’s been tough,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said.
Detroit is in position to win two straight for the first time since Feb. 24 and Feb. 25, and there may not be a better opponent to do that against than Buffalo (24-40-12) which is likely headed to a last-place finish in the Atlantic Division for the fourth time in five seasons.
The Sabres snapped a four-game slide Monday with a 3-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs behind two goals from Jack Eichel. The second overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft leads Buffalo with 24 goals and 56 points.
Eichel, who missed 15 games earlier this season with an ankle injury, needs two points to set a career high and three assists for 100 in his career.
Thursday’s game will mark the Sabres debut of center Casey Mittelstadt, who was selected eighth overall in last summer’s NHL Draft, and had 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists) in 34 games with the University of Minnesota this season.
“I’m going to try to approach it like any other game I’ve played,” Mittelstadt told the Buffalo News. “…That’s why I’m here. I’m here to learn, and I’m here to get ready for next season.”
Buffalo will be looking for Mittelstadt to make an immediate impact. The Sabres have been outscored 11-1 in a three-game losing streak at KeyBank Center.
Robin Lehner is 2-1-0 with a 1.63 goals-against average and .951 save percentage for Buffalo versus Detroit this season. However, the eight-year veteran has surrendered eight goals over his last two starts.
The Red Wings’ Jimmy Howard has lost six straight road starts while posting a 3.60 GAA. He is 3-1-1 with a 1.43 GAA all-time in Buffalo.
Backup Jared Coreau is 0-7-2 with a 4.57 GAA in 11 starts since blanking the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 16, 2017. He’s never faced the Sabres.