Even in rout, Detroit Red Wings (and the Little Caesars Arena crowd) deliver playoff hope

Detroit Free Press

An unfamiliar feeling came over me as I drove to Little Caesars Arena on Wednesday night.

It had been years since I had sensed something welling up inside me as I drove downtown on a frigid winter evening to watch the Detroit Red Wings. The throng of bustling fans who used to stream into Joe Louis Arena looked like they had rematerialized along Woodward Avenue at the Wings’ new home.

Sure, the location is different, but the vibe and the anticipation was suddenly the same because this team is relevant again — and perhaps playoff-bound.

The Wings hosted the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday — an Original Six game, yes — but this wasn’t about nostalgia (especially since the two teams now play in different conferences). It was about something else. It felt like hope that had finally been restored.

Yes, the Blackhawks did everything they could to extinguish that hope with a four-goal first period on their way to a 8-5 victory over the Wings. It may be hard to see the hope after games like these on TNT’s national telecast.

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But one game isn’t a season, or even half a season, or much of anything, really. It’s one out of 82, a fraction that tells us something but not everything. The loss to the lowly (or not) visiting Blackhawks, who fired their coach 12 games into this season and were still the third-worst team in the Western Conference even with the two points from Wednesday’s win, tells us the Wings still have one of the league’s worst defenses.

It also tells us the Blackhawks are suddenly hot with 12 points in their past nine games. And it tells us the Wings are resilient, after they cut the deficit to 4-3, and then to 6-5, against Hall of Fame-worthy goalie Marc-Andre Fleury — before they were done in by defenseman Nick Leddy’s terrible cross-ice pass in his own zone and then an empty-netter.

The loss left the Wings at 18-19-6, with 42 points after 43 games, and eight points behind the Boston Bruins for the final wild-card spot in the East.

After coach Jeff Blashill absorbed the usual salvo of what-went-wrong questions in the postmortem that follows every defeat, I asked him about the Wings’ playoff potential. Barely past the midpoint of the season, and after such a loss, it’s hard for anyone to look ahead and think of grander things.

But I think it’s important for these Wings to remember where they are in the standings and how so few of us thought they would be here. They should be reminded of the goal that still remains well within their reach.

“Our guys are aware of where we’re at,” Blashill said. “We kind of segment each five-game segment to try to be a playoff team each five games, so that’s something we talk lots about. We’ve got to make sure that we’re also doing it right on a nightly basis.”

I think that’s a brilliant approach. In football, you try to win the week. In baseball, you try to win the series. Five NHL games usually works out to a little more than a week’s worth of results with a mix of home and road games, which is a darn good barometer.

For the record, the Wings are 2-2-1 in their past five games. But another record that should be highlighted is their home record of 13-7-3, sixth-best in the conference and by far their best performance at home in years. It even outpaces their last great home record, achieved in 2015-16 when they went 22-13-6 en route to most recent playoff appearance.

That was also Blashill’s first year as the Wings’ coach. The thunder that roared through the Joe’s lower bowl, up into the cheap seats, reverberated through the rafters and cascaded over a sea of red-and-white championship banners was an exhilarating aural assault.

Little Caesars Arena is not quite there yet. Playoff series have to be won and Stanley Cups have to be raised before LCA truly matches what JLA was. But the new place is on its way.

“Yeah, our crowd,” Blashill said, when I asked him what the difference at home was this year. “The momentum in this building’s great. It’s a loud building. The fans are awesome and the crowd’s been outstanding.

“So to me that’s been a huge difference between home and away is we’ve gotten extra juice from our crowd. It’s allowed us to win some games that maybe we haven’t (in the past), that maybe we’ve been a little bit sloppy, maybe it’s covered up some things. But I think our crowd’s been great. To me, that’s been the greatest difference.”

I don’t know if the Wings will make the playoffs. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did, especially if they find a way to shore up the defense.

But I know this. The season is already a success because the Wings entered a conversation about the playoffs that few (if any) believed they had any business joining at the start of the season. The pipeline is full of youth and promise. And that feels like the kind of hope we haven’t had in Hockeytown for a long time.

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

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