Niyo: For Red Wings to remain in playoff contention, they’ll need more than luck

Detroit News

A sure sign you’ve found a better road is when the potholes are actually unexpected. Or in the case of the Red Wings this season, when a loss at home comes as system shock.

That was the case Tuesday night, when Jeff Blashill’s team came out flat-footed against the Nashville Predators at Little Caesars Arena and quickly discovered they were easy prey.

“I think every time we got into their zone, we were getting mauled,” Wings captain Dylan Larkin said, with the sort of exasperated tone you’d expect from a team that hadn’t lost a game in more than two weeks and hadn’t lost at home in nearly a month.

Larkin sounded like someone who finally feels as if traffic is moving again after a lengthy delay in this construction zone in Detroit, with an infusion of high-end young talent creating some buzz and fans actually bothering to check the NHL standings. The standings where, even after Tuesday’s 5-2 loss, the Wings do find themselves in playoff position right now, holding down the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

There are reasons to doubt whether this is sustainable or not.

Among them: The Wings have nearly as many wins in overtime (six) as they do in regulation (seven) through 26 games. That helps explain why they’re in the position they’re in at the moment. So does the fact the Wings have a few games in hand on several other teams in the East. (Only Toronto and Montreal have played more.) The Wings also are the only team in the top eight with a negative goal differential this season.

Then there’s this: Detroit has arguably the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the NHL, with three games apiece against the likes of Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina, Toronto and the New York Rangers. And while there’s a healthy separation in the standings already between the top three teams in both East divisions and the rest of the conference, that top tier doesn’t include teams like Boston and Pittsburgh that you’d expect to make a strong push this winter.

More: Raymond playing the right way, leading an impressive Wings’ rookie trio

Still, the point is the Wings are here and in the hunt and they’d like to stay that way as long as possible. Which is why this upcoming two-game road trip — tonight in St. Louis, Friday at Colorado — just might mean a little something more.

“I think momentum is critical, and I was disappointed in the game last night because we had a chance to keep that momentum at home,” coach Jeff Blashill said Wednesday after practice, where he was busy tinkering with his No. 2 power-play unit, replacing Michael Rasmussen with Vladislav Namestnikov.

And after getting top defenseman Mo Seider back on the ice — he’d left Tuesday night’s loss in the third period after getting his head smacked into the glass behind the Detroit net —  the Wings have a chance to get that momentum back, too. But they’ll have to do it playing on back-to-back nights in arenas where they haven’t won since 2016.

Said Blashill: “They are games for us to look in the mirror and say, ‘Where has our progress been?’”

And maybe for us to get a sense as to where it’s going, though it’s hard to draw too much from one game or one road trip like this, particularly with the way injuries and illness are shuffling lineups on a nightly basis in the NHL. The Wings have taken advantage of that at various points this season, and they’ll face a Blues team Thursday that can’t even ice a full lineup due to injuries and salary-cap constraints.

Blashill’s team, meanwhile, is playing without first-line winger Tyler Bertuzzi and defenseman Marc Staal due to COVID-19 protocols. Another defenseman, Filip Hronek, missed practice Wednesday to rest a nagging injury.

Still, there’s an opportunity here to prove their early success this season is more than just some home cooking. Last week’s win at Boston was an encouraging sign, but the Wings are just 4-7-1 on the road this season. So two or three or four points the next couple nights would only reinforce the notion that veteran defenseman Danny DeKeyser mentioned earlier this week, when asked to compare this team with the one that hit rock bottom two years ago.

“That was a tough season,” DeKeyser said .”It seemed like every night, it felt like we didn’t have a chance to win. … This year’s been a total reversal from that so far.”

More: OctoPulse podcast: Jeff Blashill coach of the year candidate, Nick Libett interview

Clearly, this team has improved defensively, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it watching the first period Tuesday against the Predators. Seider, a rookie who plays with beyond-his-years poise, has exceeded all expectations in his debut. (He’s on pace for a 56-point season, which would be Nicklas Lidstrom-type production if he managed to sustain it.) Nick Leddy is proving to be a savvy free-agent signing by general manager Steve Yzerman as well. Throw in the goaltending they’re getting from Alex Nedeljkovic (.918 save percentage) and the floor for this team looks much more solid than it did in recent years.

Up front, rookie Lucas Raymond’s arrival appears to have raised the ceiling, too. The young Swede is shooting, he’s scoring and he’s showing he has a knack for doing both when his team needs it most. And coupled with another key free-agent pickup in second-line center Pius Suter, it means the Wings finally have a top six that can compete with the better teams in the league.

Few would’ve predicted that back in September when Blashill announced winger Jakub Vrana — a potential 30-goal scorer —  needed shoulder surgery and would miss at least four months. But thus far, it seems to be true, at least when Bertuzzi is in the lineup.

The question is whether we’ll still be saying that in January and February. Can the Wings avoid any more significant injuries? Because they simply don’t have the depth to keep winning if they can’t. Can Blashill and his staff find a way to get more out of Filip Zadina? They’ll need to at some point. Will the rookies hit a wall after 40 or 50 games? Time will tell on that front, I suppose. (The Olympics could play a factor, too.)

But as Blashill says, with a young team like this, every game is a measuring stick. And every loss can be an inflection point.

“I would say we’ve done a pretty good job of kind of nipping things in the bud,” Blashill said. “Not totally. We’ve gone through a couple stretches where we’ve lost a few in a row.”

Yet one of the benefits of a younger roster, the coach adds, “is they have a lot of self-belief, and when you have that, you don’t let a loss bother you as much.”

When you have that, you might even hear a player like Seider say what he said the other day, when asked how this team turned things around after that four-game losing streak last month.

“Just came to practice,” the rookie shrugged, “decided to be great the next day, and now we’re here.”

Now, where will they go from here? @JohnNiyo

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