The battle for last place — or, rather, to avoid the Central Division cellar — has been set.
The Red Wings jumped out of the basement Friday, rallying for a 5-2 victory over Columbus.
Joe Veleno scored his first NHL goal, a power play goal, followed by Danny DeKeyser and Jakub Vrana goals, all 3 minutes 2 seconds apart late in the second period, erasing a 2-0 Columbus lead.
Vladislav Namestnikov added two empty net goals (ending a 17-game drought), and goaltender Thomas Greiss stopped 22 shots for the Wings.
Greiss, who isn’t expected to get Saturday’s start, will end the season without a regulation time loss in nine games (6-0-3) allowing only 15 goals in that span.
With the victory, the Red Wings (19-27-9, 47 points) climbed over Columbus (17-26-12, 46 points) in the race to last place the Central.
So, both teams have something to play for Saturday (7 p.m./Bally Sports Detroit/WWJ-950 AM) as the NHL regular season comes to a close.
Anyone who was wondering how seriously the Wings were taking these final two games, got their answer the second half of the game.
Instead of calling it a night, the Wings scored five unanswered goals.
“This group has been a group that’s fought and competed and worked on a daily basis,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “That showed tonight. Listen, we know we’re playing two games and at the end of the day there’s not a lot on the line.
“But I’ve talked about the importance of every NHL game and our guys understand that. They way they played, they didn’t fold or quit, but kept grinding and we grounded our way back into the lead and did a good job in the third (period) of finding a way to win the hockey game.
“I like our group. I’ve said it a lot this year, there’s a lot of character in the room.”
Gavin Bayreuther and Nathan Gerbe (Oxford) scored for Columbus, both scoring their first goals this season.
Gerbe put the Blue Jackets ahead 2-0 at 7:48 of the second period, his first goal since Feb. 13, 2020.
Gerbe gathered an outlet pass, got behind the Wings’ defense, and backhanded a shot past Greiss to seemingly give the Jackets a comfortable lead.
But it disappeared quickly.
Veleno, in his fifth NHL game, earned his first goal and NHL point, beginning the surge on the power play. Vrana found Veleno on a pass through the slot, and Veleno snapped a shot just under the crossbar, past Columbus goalie Matiss Kivlenieks at 13:50.
In a small sample size in the waning days of the NHL season, Veleno has shown some the qualities that have made him one of the Wings’ top prospects.
“That’s a good goal, a real goal,” Blashill said. “He did a real good job with the shot there.”
Veleno was thrilled to get his first NHL goal.
“It felt real good to have the first one go in, and to have a victory for our team,” Veleno said. “It’s a lot of happy faces around the locker room. I just wanted to stay with it and be patient and if you work hard, good things will happen and you’ll get your chances.
“It was a great play, good puck movement on the power play. I just tried to find an open lane to get that pass and it was a hell of a pass, and I was able to get it off my stick quick.”
The Wings, said Veleno, talked about finishing this season strong with these final two games.
“We have a lot of guys who want to make good last impressions,” Veleno said. “We have something to play for. A lot of guys want to leave off with good impressions and I’m here as well trying to do the same thing leading into next year.”
The Wings quickly tied it 2-2 on DeKeyser’s third goal.
On a delayed penalty, after Darren Helm was tripped behind the net, Mathias Brome’s shot went wide and caromed off the boards to DeKeyser pinching from the left side.
DeKeyser basically chopped at the puck, and it fluttered behind Kivlenieks at 14:48, tying the game.
Vrana then broke the tie, capping the Wings’ explosion.
Richard Panik, who arrived with Vrana from Washington in the Anthony Mantha trade, fed Vrana near the slot and Vrana quickly snapped a shot top corner past Kivlenieks at 16:52.
The goal was Vrana’s 18th this season, his seventh with the Wings in 10 games.
Given where both teams sit in the standings, and the fact the Wings were coming off four days off, it was logical to be concerned about the Wings’ motivation and passion.
But the way the Wings rallied from an early deficit certainly showed a desire to play, play well and win.
“We were down 2-0 and we stayed with it,” Blashill said. “That’s the biggest thing. We have a good character group and we stayed with it. We weren’t good enough in the first (period), we didn’t seem to have our game going early at all, but we got better as the game went along.”