Red Wings learning to play with the lead; Namestnikov an early surprise

Detroit News

Detroit — The Red Wings are learning much about themselves these days as they slowly get out of the rebuilding stage in their development.

Slowly, but most assuredly, they are learning the details it takes to win hockey games.

Tuesday’s victory over Edmonton was a prime example.

Against a high-powered, offensive machine like the Oilers, while grasping to a one-goal lead throughout the third period, the Wings checked off the right boxes to maintain the lead, then Tyler Bertuzzi salted it away with an empty-net goal.

“It’s important for us to win games where you just have a one-goal lead for a long period of time,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “That’s the learning process. We have to be able to win 2-1 and we be able to win 6-1.”

The game against the Oilers was notable on so many levels.

With the Wings leading 3-0, Edmonton scored late in the second period, then star Connor McDavid scored in the opening moments of the third period. Suddenly, the Wings’ lead was only 3-2 with the vast portion of the third period to play.

In the past few seasons, the Red Wings were likely to wilt in that situation. The talent level wasn’t as good, execution of the game plan wasn’t certain, and confidence was waning from all the losses.

Thus far this season, it’s been a Wings’ team that has appeared to take in the lessons from all the defeats, and there’s been appreciable growth.

The Wings are slowly learning what it takes to win from game to game, night to night.

“For a team that’s learning how to win, we’re doing a good job of staying in games,” goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic said. “There are a few games where we’ve come from behind in the third period, like we found a way to win (Saturday) in Buffalo. We came up a little short against Florida, but we were right there.”

Nedeljkovic said the Edmonton victory “was a huge game to build off for confidence. We had the lead, kind of let them back in, and we found a way to win. That’s what good teams do.

“It’s not always going to be pretty, but you find ways to win and at the end of the day, two points is what matters.”

Nedeljkovic feels there’s a growing maturity level within the Wings, not dwelling on previous shifts, and focusing on what is ahead.

“You could feel momentum build on their side, they got a late one in the second, they score first shift in the third — not ideal,” Nedeljkovic said of the way the Oilers’ game unfolded. “But things happen and that’s the game. You have to be able to move and to recover.”

Subscribers: Red Wings’ surprising early season surge can be credited to this line

Hot shooter

You probably wouldn’t have won a lot of bets if you picked Vladislav Namestnikov as the Wings’ second leading goal-scorer at this point of the season. But there was Namestnikov heading into Thursday’s game, with seven goals. Only Tyler Berutzzi, with nine, had more.

The strange thing is, Namestnikov had eight goals all last season, while playing 53 games in the pandemic-shortened season.

“Weird year for me, the pandemic, (hitting) a lot of posts, sometimes that happens,” Namestnikov said of the offensive production last season. “This year I had a good summer, I worked hard, and it’s paying off.”

Namestnikov felt his shot could be stronger, more accurate, and getting into position to get the shot off.

The hard work with other local NHL players appears to have worked wonders.

“It’s something that him and I met about at the end of the (season),” Blashill said. “He went to work hard on his shot. There’s more than just the shot that can allow you to score goals. He worked with a skills coach in the area, with (Chicago’s Alex) DeBrincat and (Wings’ defenseman Jordan) Oesterle. He’s worked hard at it.”

Whole lineup

You can almost hear the coaching staff knocking on wood, but the Red Wings, heading into Thursday night’s game, essentially had a full lineup.

Defenseman Troy Stecher is out with an undisclosed injury, but Stecher was alternating into the lineup, and hasn’t been a regular.

With Dylan Larkin returning from his family emergency, and Tyler Bertuzzi squarely into the lineup since there are no games in Canada (Bertuzzi is unvaccinated), the Red Wings can place personnel in the lineup where Blashill feels they’re most effective, and not have to slot players into roles that aren’t entirely comfortable or productive.

“When you are shorthanded you’re asking a lot of players at times to move up lineups and spots where they’re not ready for,” Blashill said. “When you have a full lineup, you can slot people into matchups where it allows them to be successful. It allows you to slot everyone in the right slots.”

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Twitter: @tkulfan

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