DETROIT (AP) - Nicklas Lidstrom had a Central Division champs T-shirt and hat waiting for him in his locker.
Lidstrom scored to help the Detroit Red Wings beat the Minnesota Wild 4-2 on Sunday night and clinch their ninth division title in 10 seasons and the 14th since 1991-92 when he was a rookie.
``I've got a few of those,' Lidstrom joked, gesturing toward the red T-shirt and black baseball cap. ``We're in a tough division with Nashville and Chicago, so it always matters to finish first.'
The Red Wings moved one point ahead of idle San Jose, which has played one fewer game, for second place in the Western Conference with a week left in the regular season.
Perhaps more importantly, Detroit is getting some key players back on the ice.
Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk played for the first time since March 17, returning from a lower body injury, and Jimmy Howard made 27 saves in his second straight game after missing two because of an injured left shoulder.
``As soon as Pav gets on the ice, the whole team suddenly has more space,' Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said.
Brad Staubitz scored his third goal of the season to pull Minnesota within one early in the second period and helped set up Carson McMillan's goal in his NHL debut with 3:06 left to make it 4-2.
``I thought our defense competed and played hard,' Wild coach Todd Richards said. ``We lacked the other things you need against a team as good as that.'
Detroit hasn't started well at home lately, but did against the Wild when Darren Helm scored 2:46 in. Lidstrom scored with 20 seconds left in the first period.
After Staubitz gave the Wild some hope with a goal early in the second, Tomas Holmstrom restored Detroit's two-goal lead midway through the period.
Johan Franzen's goal might not have meant much in the game, but it was potentially a good sign for the Red Wings because they will need him to be the scoring threat in the playoffs that he has been in the past. He scored for just the second time since a five-goal game on Feb. 2 at Ottawa.
While not overly important, this goal allowed Detroit to coast in a game that gave the storied franchise another division title.
The Chicago Blackhawks are the only other team to win the Central Division since 2001, breaking Detroit's streak last year before winning the Stanley Cup.
``The first thing that pops out at you is the skill level,' Minnesota winger Andrew Brunette said. ``The way they make the first pass, they've got Lidstrom, whose the best at it. I think he's the best player in the league in the past 15 years.'
NOTES: Minnesota is in a 2-9-1 slump. ... Detroit D Niklas Kronwall (upper body) missed his second straight game and C Mike Modano was a healthy scratch. Modano has played 1,496 games and Detroit has three left. ``We didn't bring him here to get 1,500 games,' Babcock said. ``We brought him to win the Cup. I think he'll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer no matter what.' ... Lidstrom has a six-game point streak. ... Since the Wild joined the NHL for the 2000-01 season, they have won the Northwest Division once (2007-08). They will finish in third place this season.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved