Here’s where Detroit Red Wings must improve to grab a playoff spot this season

Detroit Free Press

Before we get into any of this, please take a moment and, in your own way, applaud what the Detroit Red Wings have done this season.

Exiting the NHL’s All-Star break, the Wings have a 20-21-6 record with 46 points through 47 games. That has them nine points behind the Boston Bruins, who have played four fewer games, for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

At this point, it doesn’t look like the Wings will make the playoffs because they have too much ground to make up. But they might. And that we’re even discussing the Wings’ first potenial playoff berth since the 2015-16 season is an accomplishment in itself. So yes, give these winged-wheeled wonders a hand.

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The Wings have overachieved this season, thanks in large part to an infusion of talent from rookies Lucas Raymond, Moritz Seider and Alex Nedeljkovic complementing excellent play from veterans Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t room to improve. So here are some areas where the Wings need to get better after the All-Star break if they want to make the playoffs.

Kings of the road

The Wings had their butts handed to them by Los Angeles, 5-3, at Little Caesars Arena on Wednesday. The Kings outhustled the Wings and outshot them, 45-25, to cap off a six-game Eastern Conference swing that should have left L.A. exhausted, rather than with a 4-0-2 record.

The Wings should have asked the Kings for some tips because they’re miserable away from home. Their 6-12-3 road record is the NHL’s fifth-worst.

Yes, there are definite advantages for the home team in the NHL, including the last line change, bench location and faceoffs at center. But it’s actually not that hard to win on the road. Of the league’s 32 teams, 20 have at least a .500 points percentage on the road.

Winning on the road will be crucial to the Wings’ success because 20 of their final 35 games — including five of their final six — will be on the road. And one-quarter of those remaining road games are in Canada, which means the Wings will be without Bertuzzi, who can’t play there because he isn’t vaccinated.

The Wings at least have been better of late. with two wins and two OT losses in their past five road games. They’ll probably have to do at least that well on the road the rest of the season if they want a shot at the playoffs.

Chaos theory

The Wings don’t shoot enough, plain and simple. Their 29.2 per game is tied for eighth-fewest .

Their performance against the Kings is a great example … and I’m talking about when they lost, 4-0, at L.A. in early January and were outshot, 42-21. They were held to an astounding two shots in the first period. That means the Kings outshot the Wings, 87-46, in two games while outscoring them, 9-3.

The Kings rank third with 35.7 shots per game. It’s no coincidence they’re red-hot, and last week’s win over the Wings is an example of what taking a lot of shots does. Thanks to Nedeljkovic, it was actually a close game that was tied midway through the third period. But the Kings’ aggressive attack produced the go-ahead goal.

Shots on goal isn’t a perfect metric, but I’m not getting into Corsi, Fenwick or mustaches. If you want that, look elsewhere. Nerd.

What I am getting into is the idea that the Wings need to stop trying to be so precise. I’ve seen this countless times from countless teams that weren’t good. A lack of confidence in overall ability leads to extra passes and unnecessary stickhandling when a simple shot would serve just as well at creating a chance off a rebound or tip.

To his credit, coach Jeff Blashill doesn’t put too much stock in shots on goal. He’s more concerned with scoring opportunities and fostering an attack mentality, and he has talked about the benefits of creating chaos.

“I don’t know if it’s as easy as you and I sit here and say it,” Blashill said in November after a 2-0 loss to Washington, “in the sense that if you don’t think you have a lane and you shoot it and it gets blocked, you feel like it’s the wrong play. That’s what happens. The reality is, a lot of times a block ends up with chaos, and it’s OK to make them block shots.”

I believe more shots, and the mentality that goes with them, lead to a lot of good things, such as taking the stress off the defense and helping the power play (where the Wings convert a terrible 16.2% and rank seventh-worst). It’s also, frankly, more fun to watch a team willing to let it rip.

Detroit energy

Hockey is a very taxing game. The average shift lasts about 45 seconds. Any physical activity you can’t do for even a full minute is extremely difficult. (Insert your favorite joke here.)

I can’t imagine the strength, resolve and mental fortitude it takes to play late in the third period against a guy like Kings forward Adrian Kempe, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound bruising forward who seems just as content scoring goals as he does trying to snatch souls with bone-crushing hits in the corners.

But that’s what the Wings must do. They have to get tougher and stronger and dictate the style and pace of play more often. They do that sometimes, but not with enough consistency. Again, the game against the Kings was a great example. Somehow — even though they’d been at home for five days and had a full day of rest — the Wings lost to a West Coast team at the end of a six-game Eastern trip. Inexcusable.

“I didn’t think our battle level was nearly good enough,” Blashill said. “For the most part this season our compete and battle level has been really, really good. And I thought tonight, I thought the stick battles, they were harder on sticks, they were stopping on pucks better than us. …

“I thought we had too many guys that had their ‘B’ game — ‘C’ game, maybe — and we can’t afford that. We need guys to have their ‘A’ game.”

There’s no easy fix here. Like I said, a minute’s a long time. (Insert your second-favorite joke here). But whenever I watch a growing team like the Wings or the Lions or — OK, every Detroit team — the one thing I want more than results is effort. That’s something every team, regardless of talent, can control.

Blashill deserves some blame for this because he needs to find the right motivational tactic to get a consistently high effort out of his players. Yes, there’s a fine line between being Scotty Bowman or Mike Babcock — that is, between being a hard-ass or just being an ass. They can both be effective, but Blashill and his staff need to decide how they can better influence the Wings’ urgency over the final 35 games if they want to turn what’s been a good season into a great one  —and the franchise’s first playoff game in six years.

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

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