Detroit – There’s another aspect of the Red Wings’ improvement that is noticeable, and has been quite important recently
The Red Wings, especially recently, have avoided those long, disastrous losing streaks that can severely dent a team’s chance of making the playoffs.
The last four times the Wings have lost a game? They’ve won a game each of the next four games, snuffing out a losing streak quickly, and continuing to flirt with the .500 record they’ve generally been at the entire season (currently 23-22-6).
This last example was losing Monday in Minnesota, a 7-4 loss to the Wild that looked worse on the scoreboard than on the ice — but coming back Thursday and defeating the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, 3-2 in a shootout, and instilling confidence for the rest of this rugged seven-game stretch against top teams in the NHL standings.
“It’s important in this league not to get on a bad stretch, and that’s easier said than done,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “We’ve got a tough stretch ahead of us, still, but it’s important to follow up losses with wins. Sometimes, there’s a snowball effect, but you play so much and you’ve lost five straight and you really lose position in the standings.
“We’ve done a pretty job of (avoiding that) and we’re going to need to (continue) but we’re going to need to go on a run and find ways to win six or seven in a row. And again, that’s not easy.”
There are reasons why, or how, the Wings have avoided those lengthy losing streaks that have plagued them, especially the last several seasons:
► This roster has displayed the fortitude to come back from tough losses.
“It speaks to the fact our guys have done a good job of having the mental toughness and coming back and recognizing the urgency of the moment,” Blashill said. “We did that at the start of the game (Thursday). We were excellent, and we made mistakes throughout, but we were excellent early.”
There were plenty of opportunities the last few seasons to learn from crucial mistakes, and learn how to handle defeat and glean lessons from those losses. This season, the Wings appear to applying all those valuable, hard-earned lessons.
“The guys who’ve been here for a little while are growing and maturing,” forward Sam Gagner said. “You look at what Bert (Tyler Bertuzzi) has brought this year and Larks (Dylan Larkin) and his maturity and growth, and then you have our young players who have stepped up and played real well for us. We’re on the right path. If you look back a couple of years, we’re in a lot better position than we were.”
► There’s been improvement on the road. The Wings have earned points in six of their last eight road games (4-2-2), and have won in arenas in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York (Rangers), where wins haven’t come easy for the Wings in the past.
“Hopefully we’re understanding that when we play good hockey, we can win,” said Blashill, who feels the Wings are building confidence away from Little Caesars Arena. “We have even better hockey in us. I’m a big believer if we can learn to play on a consistent basis, the style we play, making sure we’re taking care of the puck and playing in the offensive zone more and trying to be on top of things, if we can do that on a consistent basis, we can continue to have even more success on the road.”
► The Wings’ overall talent on the roster is simply better than it’s been the last several seasons.
Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond are both rookie of the year candidates, and Alex Nedeljkovic isn’t far behind. Bertuzzi, Larkin, Filip Hronek, Robby Fabbri and Pius Suter have taken another step forward in their careers, and the Wings’ have valuable veteran depth who’ve contributed in big ways (Vladislav Namestnikov, Gagner, Marc Staal, Thomas Greiss)
“There’s an infusion of talent so you’re in a better position to compete on a night to night basis,” Blashill said.
The Wings are 10-6 in overtime/shootouts this season, an indication the overall skill level is having an impact.
“Guys who have played in those situations that wouldn’t have been there a year ago, like Nick Leddy, Moritz, Razor (Raymond), I also think Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi and Robby Fabbri, those guys have gotten better, FIlip Hronek, in those situations. They’ve learned how to create without cheating for offense. Shootouts are a little different, I can’t say particularly why shootouts have been better (3-1), we work on it similar to how we worked on it before, but different shooters.”
►The intriguing thing to watch these final two months of the regular season will be whether the Wings can sustain, and improve upon, this growth and make a serious run toward the playoffs.
They get one potentially valuable piece returning to the lineup, in goal-scorer Jakub Vrana (shoulder surgery), who has been out all season. Vrana could inject a layer of offense that could make this a dangerous team.
The standings are skewed with several teams around the Wings possessing three or four games in hand, but the games-played column will even out by the end of the month.
Blashill feels the best thing the Wings can do is simply to accumulate as many points they can.
“We just keep putting pressure on teams above us by trying to win as many games as we can,” Blashill said. “We don’t have any control of whether other teams win their games, and games in hand are great unless you don’t win them. There are no guarantees. The games might be worth six points, but they have to win all three of those games, and that’s not always easy.
“We just have to keep growing and getting better, not just for right now but for our future, and put pressure on the teams above us. You do that by playing great hockey and winning as many games as you can.”
Said Gagner: “The coaching staff has done a real good job of preparing us and helping us improve and there’s still areas of growth in our game we have to continue to build on. But the progress has been great.”