Niyo: A familiar result to start, but this Red Wings season won’t feel quite the same

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

They knew this would feel awkward from the start.

“I mean, it’s been 11 months,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said Thursday morning, hours before his team finally had a chance to play a real hockey game again. “By this point, it’s close to 11, right? Maybe ten. Whatever it is, it’s a long time.”

It was 310 days, to be exact. And while the opponent was the same as the last time the Red Wings hit the ice for an NHL game — in a 5-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes last March — that was about the only thing that seemed familiar.

Sure, Karen Newman sang the national anthem at Little Caesars Arena on Thursday night, but she performed it from above the Zamboni entrance. Newman was surrounded by a sea of red, but those were red tarps, rather than 20,000 fans showing their true colors. And as the pregame introductions for the Red Wings’ season opener reached a crescendo, well, it was nothing like what you’d expect.

Not with only a couple hundred family and friends in attendance. Or even with the piped-in crowd noise augmenting whatever their lungs could muster as Dylan Larkin skated out last, making his debut as the 37th captain in franchise history.

No, this was strange, all right.

“As soon the game got going — as soon as you stopped thinking about it — it got better,” Larkin said later, after the Wings had started the way they finished last season, saddled with another loss. “I talked to a lot of guys on our team, and it felt like your first game in the NHL tonight. It’s been a while, and there are nerves.”

But there was also hockey, and that’s what mattered most. Certainly more than the end result: a 3-0 loss that looked a lot like last year’s results on the scoresheet even if it didn’t look quite that bad on the ice for most of the night.

No, this was progress, no matter what the scoreboard said.

“For two periods, it was a fairly even hockey game,” Blashill said. “That’s what the chances say. That was kind of my gut feeling on the bench. Everything but the shot total, it was an even hockey game.”

That’s a bit of a stretch, obviously. But everything’s relative here, obviously. And this wasn’t the same thing we grew accustomed to seeing last winter, as the Red Wings endured one of the worst seasons in franchise history, winning just 17 of 71 games.

They were dominated in the faceoff circle Thursday, did nothing on the power play, were outshot by more than a 3-to-1 margin — Carolina finished with a ridiculous 43-14 advantage in shots on goal — and ultimately lost their home opener in a shutout.

But unlike last year, when the Wings would give up an early goal and then almost immediately fall apart on far too many nights, that didn’t really happen Thursday.

It was Larkin who made the costly blunder in a tight-checking first period, flipping a careless backhand pass as he exited his own zone. Carolina’s Sebastian Aho knocked it down, sent a pass to teammate Nino Niederreiter, who’d skated in alone from the bench and quickly made it 1-0 just 3:38 into the game.

But from there the Wings’ mostly held their own for 40 minutes — or at least stayed in the game — by limiting the quality scoring chances against goalie Thomas Greiss, who played well in his Detroit debut after signing as a free agent back in October.

Larkin’s top line wasn’t much of a threat — remember, Carolina’s defense is among the NHL’s best — but there were flashes from others, including another newcomer, Mathias Brome, the Swede who’d forced his way onto the roster with a strong camp and probably had Detroit’s best chance of the night when he sent one off the crossbar behind ex-Wings goalie Petr Mrazek.

Defensively, this Detroit team should be improved this year as well, with better depth — Troy Stecher is another underrated addition — and a better sense of when to make the simple plays, which is something we saw signs of through the first two periods, at least.

“They’re not a high-risk group, necessarily,” Blashill said of his defensive corps. “I think they’re a fairly efficient group, and that can really be their strength.”

This team won’t have nearly enough of those, obviously. And we saw that in the third period, when the Hurricanes tilted the rink — Blashill said the scoring chances were 10-2 in the visitors’ favor — and then capitalized when Larkin and Patrik Nemeth took consecutive penalties in the final 5 minutes. essentially giving Carolina an extended power play to end the game. Which they did, as good teams often do when they’re playing bad ones.

Look, this is still likely a bottom-five team in the NHL we’re watching here in Detroit, though hopefully one with more lottery luck in the end.

But there’s plenty of room for improvement, which is really all general manager Steve Yzerman admits he can expect at this point in a rebuild. And more than enough opportunity to show it, playing a 56-game schedule over 115 days, starting with a rematch with Carolina in less than 48 hours.

And after no games for what felt like an eternity, that felt good — and different — Thursday night, even if the loss didn’t.

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