The Chicago Blackhawks are starting the most crucial part of their 2011 season. They’ll need a big push to down the stretch to keep pace with the rest of the Western Conference, and they must start with their rival.

These Central Division foes have three meetings left beginning with Monday night’s matchup in Detroit, and that could end up being an advantage for the Blackhawks.

Detroit (44-22-9) is closing in on its 20th straight playoff berth, and holds a five-point lead over Nashville in the division race. The Red Wings are also tied with Pacific Division leader San Jose in the race for the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed.

Chicago (40-26-8), meanwhile, will begin a three-game trip in eighth place in the West. The Blackhawks are one point ahead of Calgary and two in front of Dallas.

The last defending Stanley Cup champion to miss the playoffs was Carolina in 2006-07.

“We’ve got some big games, we’ve obviously got three on the road here,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We’re going into a tough building in Detroit. We’ve got them three times, which are all huge games. We know the importance of it.”

The Blackhawks have won their last three visits to Joe Louis Arena, and will likely face a short-handed Detroit club Monday.

Jimmy Howard made 15 saves Saturday before leaving 6:11 into the third period when Toronto’s Joffrey Lupul fell on him during Detroit’s 4-2 victory. The goalie is day-to-day after an MRI revealed no major damage to his left shoulder.

General manager Ken Holland says Howard should be able to return next weekend, if not Wednesday night against St. Louis. The Red Wings plan to call up Thomas McCollum from Toledo of the ECHL to back up goalie Joey MacDonald in the meantime.

Usual backup goalie Chris Osgood is on the long-term injured list because he’s been slow to heal after sports hernia surgery in January. He can’t be activated until only two games remain in the regular season so Detroit will start MacDonald, who has never faced Chicago.

The Red Wings have also been using the stretch run to give some skaters time to heal. Two of their 20-goal scorers, Johan Franzen (groin) and Pavel Datsyuk (lower-body injury), sat out Saturday.

Henrik Zetterberg had a goal and an assist as the Red Wings ended a three-game skid. Zetterberg has no points in three games against Chicago this season after amassing six in four last season.

The Blackhawks hold a 2-1-0 lead in the season series, going 4 for 9 on the power play. Former Red Wing Tomas Kopecky has four of Chicago’s 10 goals in those games.

Marian Hossa scored in the first period Saturday but Chicago came up empty the rest of the way in a critical 2-1 home loss to Anaheim. The Blackhawks fell one point behind the seventh-place Ducks.

“We have a huge one in Detroit,” Hossa said Saturday. “It’s not going be any easier than tonight. We just have to grow step by step, and it’s not going to be easy. But we got a great team here so we know we can definitely do it.”

Chicago remains without Patrick Sharp, who has a team-high 34 goals. He’s missed the last two games with an injured left knee and the club is hopeful he will return before the end of the regular season.

Copyright 2010 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. STATS LLC and The Associated Press contributed to this article. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.

Watch & Listen LIVE