What Detroit Red Wings’ recent upset wins prove about the rebuild’s progress

Detroit Free Press

Is the ice finally cracking?

Is the winter of our discontent coming to an end?

Are the Detroit Red Wings finally showing significant improvement?

Well, it sure looks that way, especially if you watched their inspired performance in Tuesday’s night’s 4-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Last week, the Wings had a win and an overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning are the NHL’s best team, according to win percentage. The Canes are the fourth-best team. And the Wings took five out of eight possible points in four games against elite teams at Little Caesars Arena.

Red Wings playing how ‘real hockey teams have to play.’ Here’s what has changed ]

Yes, the Wings are still locked in the Central Division basement and remain longshots to make the playoffs. But it’s about more than just points and standings. It’s about performance. It’s about what you can see with your own eyes and feel in your gut.

If you didn’t see Tuesday’s game, you missed out because it’s starting to feel like something special is brewing like progress is being made.

If you haven’t been watching, I can’t blame you. I spoke with a diehard Wings fan recently who admitted it’s been tough to watch the team as it continues a long rebuild. In February, the Wings were shut out twice in seven days and scored four goals over four games. The Production Line, they ain’t.

But the Wings’ latest four-game stretch against two of the NHL’s best teams was not only watchable, but enjoyable. They played a great second period in the OT loss to Tampa Bay. And then came Tuesday, which was arguably their best game of the season from start to finish.

“We played the way real hockey teams have to play,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “It was a good step. … Now we’re in a spot where we’ve played pretty good hockey and we’re starting to see some results. It’s important reinforcement for guys to keep their belief up.”

It’s more than just keeping the belief up for players. It’s also about making the fans and the city believe. Because this is Hockeytown, and good hockey in the winter and spring around here is a salve for our vulcanized-rubber souls, especially with every team going through a rebuild amid a pandemic.

That’s why Tuesday’s win mattered so much. It felt like the Wings took a stand and backed a bully down when they faced the Canes’ relentless style. As TV analyst Mickey Redmond said at one point: “They play the game like there’s six guys on the ice all the time. It’s like there’s a white jersey everywhere.”

Yep, it’s suffocating. And guess what. The Wings didn’t choke. Instead, they gritted their teeth and bit back, matching Carolina’s pace and ending the Hurricanes’ eight-game winning streak. They got their struggling special teams to click with two power-play goals from Adam Erne and held the Canes’ top-ranked power play to one goal on three chances.

Defenseman Filip Hronek had two assists and iced the game with an empty-netter. He’s looking increasingly comfortable quarterbacking the power play.

[ Red Wings stock watch: Anthony Mantha rising, Thomas Greiss keeps falling ]

But the guy who has become a must-watch wizard is Dylan Larkin, who was simply stellar against Carolina. Larkin is becoming the kind of player Pavel Datsyuk and Sergei Fedorov were, two-way dynamos who made you think you were about to see something you’d never seen before when they had the puck on their stick.

Larkin was that player Tuesday. He had a beautiful assists when he took the puck from end-to-end in the second period, beat two defenders at the Carolina blue line, swerved to the left of the net and backhanded a pass to trailing Robby Fabbri, who one-timed it past goalie James Reimer for a 3-2 lead.

Then Larkin did it again.

Midway through the third period, he picked off a pass from defenseman Bob McGinn at the Canes’ blue line and charged toward the left side of the net, pulling three Carolina skaters and Reimer with him and then centered a pass again for Fabbri. It should have been an easy goal with Reimer way out of position, but McGinn managed to block the shot.

Larkin is the centerpiece of the Wings’ rebuild and the main reason the team might one day win big again. Fans should tune in as Larkin and Fabbri develop the kind of scoring chemistry that’s reminiscent of the old Wayne Gretzky-Jari Kurri magic.

It’s hard to say if this will continue, though it could with dog-tired Dallas coming to town for two games this week. But even if it doesn’t, it’s enough that the Wings have given us reason to start watching again.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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