Detroit Red Wings approach final weekend with gratitude. Here’s why

Detroit Free Press

A most unusual season comes to an end this weekend for the Detroit Red Wings, who cap off a pandemic-shortened slate with a competition for the seventh and eighth spots in the Central Division.

It’ll be a patchwork lineup that faces the Blue Jackets in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday and Saturday, robbed of Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, Bobby Ryan and Robby Fabbri. But given how abruptly last season ended, shut down March 12 because of COVID-19, this 56-game sprint that started Jan.14 has been worth savoring.

“My message to each player from our Zoom calls in summer to when we got together in camp is that — let’s appreciate every single day that we have together,” coach Jeff Blashill said Thursday after a spirited practice. “You never know what tomorrow brings. There was no greater lesson than last season on that. All of a sudden, a pandemic hit and we were sitting in our basements. Nobody could really do anything.

“I’ve always been somebody to stress appreciating what you have in front of you today, and appreciating the opportunities you have, and trying to seize on those opportunities.”

For young players such as Filip Zadina, Joe Veleno and Michael Rasmussen, the last two games are a chance to further impress. For veterans such as Sam Gagner and Marc Staal, it’s a last chance to show if they fit into next season’s plans.

[Why Steve Yzerman should (and shouldn’t) keep Jeff Blashill as coach]

Ryan, who is recovering from triceps surgery, relayed a conversation he had this week with an unnamed young player.

“I said, ‘listen, there’s going to be older guys that might seem like they’re on cruise control a little bit, but you’re not,’” Ryan said. “’You’ve had too good a year, made too many strides, just continue to work this week,’ and the guy that I talked to, [he] already had that in my mind.”

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The Wings came into the season hoping to be competitive. But five players came down with COVID-19 a week into the season, and the team never was able to gain any traction, especially as on-ice injuries mounted. Still, this year’s squad already has won more games (18) than than the squad that finished last season 17-49-5, and has a chance to reach 20 victories. For the people inside the locker room, this weekend isn’t about the draft lottery, it’s about pride and appreciation.

The Wings have gone four days between games, after barely having time to catch their collective breath while mostly playing every other day this season. That afforded a moment for Blashill to refresh his message during practice.

“I just wanted to make sure we all continue to recognize we’ve got two NHL games ahead of us this weekend,” he said. “They’re not for playoff spots — I get that. They’re still two NHL games and those matter. Let’s make the most of each one of those games.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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