Jimmy Howard celebrated his 26th birthday by helping the Detroit Red Wings firm up their playoff positioning.
Howard stopped 25 shots in making his 21st consecutive start, and Johan Franzen supported him with two goals and two assists as the Wings beat up on the Minnesota Wild 6-2 on Friday at Joe Louis Arena.
Tomas Holmstrom added a power-play goal, Jonathan Ericsson scored shorthanded and Pavel Datsyuk and Drew Miller also lit the lamp in Detroit’s best offensive output since a 7-4 win over Anaheim on Nov. 14.
In winning its fourth straight, Detroit opened up a six-point lead over ninth-place Calgary in the Western Conference playoff race. It tied Colorado for seventh with 89 points, one behind Los Angeles for sixth and two in back of Nashville for fifth. The Red Wings visit the Predators on Saturday.
"Right now two points is two points and we'll take it," said Howard, who won the 31st game of his rookie season. "Every line is rolling. We've got the special teams going and if we're going to keep continuing to play like this, the way we're tracking and the way we’re getting pucks in and working other team's 'D' and drawing penalties, then we’re going to be tough to play against."
Franzen, whose four points were a career best, opened the scoring and sparked a four-goal second period for the Wings when he broke into the Wild zone ahead of their defense and put a nice move on Josh Harding, faking a shot from the circle to draw the goalie out of position and then scoring into the open net at the 1:19 mark.
"It was bouncing my way tonight, our way. It happens," Franzen said.
The special teams took it from there, as Holmstrom tipped a Nicklas Lidstrom shot on a Detroit man advantage at 4:32 and Ericsson tipped another Lidstrom drive at 10:03 while the Wings were killing a bench minor for too many men. Datsyuk capped the barrage 80 seconds later when his attempted pass from the corner caromed off the skate of Minnesota defenseman Greg Zanon and past Harding.
"We unraveled in the second period," Wild coach Todd Richards said.
The Wild, who now trail the Wings and Avalanche by 11 points and are all but mathematically eliminated with just seven games remaining, briefly made a game of it. Andrew Brunette scored a power-play goal with 3:53 left in the second and Owen Nolan made it 4-2 on a fluke shot 2:09 into the third, when Howard misplayed the bouncing puck and allowed it to skip into the net.
"I would've liked to have had that second goal back," Howard said. "Should have played it like a shortstop and attacked it instead of sitting back."
However, Franzen and Miller scored goals 1:57 apart to put the game away. Franzen got his second of the game and ninth of the season on a power play at 5:29 when a bouncing puck went in off his leg, and Miller added his ninth to cap the offense.
"There were a lot of teams close to them for a while, but they've definitely stepped up their game to make sure they'll make it into the playoffs," Zanon said.
The latter two goals came against Niklas Backstrom, who relieved Harding to begin the third period.
Detroit, which is 9-1-1 in its last 11, has gone from flip-flopping with Calgary for the ninth seed to possibly finding itself in a tie for fifth after Saturday if it beats Nashville and Colorado and Los Angeles lose.
"It's going to be a tough game. They always play us hard, especially in their own barn," Howard said. "They come at us hard and we're going to have to weather the storm in the first 10 minutes of the game and then get our game going."
Material from wire services and team broadcast media was used in this report.