The Detroit Red Wings return to work after a weeklong break with 35 games left to prove that they have taken a step forward this season.
They head into Philadelphia on Wednesday, and host the Flyers on Saturday, then have just four games left the rest of the month because February is being used as a pandemic make-up month rather than the Olympic break originally intended.
The Wings entered the break 20-21-6, humbled by a 5-3 loss to the Los Angeles Kings that capped two weeks of celebration and frustration.
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To recap: the Wings were in position to win Jan. 21 vs the Stars but settled for an overtime loss; were manhandled by Nashville; had pulled within a goal twice against the Blackhawks only to lose; celebrated a well-earned victory in Pittsburgh; blew a lead against the Maple Leafs; grinded out a win against the Ducks and were within a goal twice against the Kings.
Alternate captain Marc Staal said he thought the Wings, “played some solid hockey in that stretch, but our lulls are too deep. When we don’t really have it was a team, we just have to find a way not to hurt ourselves and be happy with nothing going on. We can learn that going into the second half — just get tighter and harder to play against.”
Coach Jeff Blashill pointed to the fact that in five of the six periods against the Penguins and Leafs, “we played the way we have to play to be successful.” That is: Got the puck in deep, forechecked and made plays when there was a play to be made. Not forcing a play has been a point of emphasis from Blashill over the past month, as the Wings have hurt themselves when they’ve been impatient with the puck.
These last two-and-a-half months will be a test for the Wings, as they face multiple opponents who are jockeying for playoff positioning: three games each against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and New York Rangers, two games each against the Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes and games against the Leafs and Boston Bruins, among others.
While the Wings play, general manager Steve Yzerman will be watching. The trade deadline is March 21, and the list of Wings who are pending unrestricted free agents includes Staal, fellow defenseman Nick Leddy, forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and Sam Gagner and goaltender Thomas Greiss. The Wings are on pace to miss the playoffs, but if they continue to make positive strides, some of those players may earn extensions rather than be trade fodder.
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There’s potentially exciting news for the Wings as they come out of the break, too. Top-line winger Jakub Vrana, who left training camp with a shoulder injury that required surgery, is due for a checkup with his surgeon mid-February. Pending that update, Vrana, who began noncontact practice in January, could soon be shoring up the Wings’ scoring punch.
Contact Helene St. James at email@example.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 Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.
Next up: Flyers
Matchup: Red Wings (20-21-6) at Philadelphia (15-22-8).
Faceoff: 7 p.m. Wednesday; Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia.
TV/radio: Bally Sports Detroit; WXYT-FM (97.1).