How Detroit Red Wings answered Jeff Blashill’s challenge: ‘We stuck together’

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Red Wings rallied around one another when they most needed it, restoring a measure of pride as they embark on a trek out west.

It speaks to how they’ve tumbled that a 6-5 shootout loss begets optimism, but that’s where the Wings are as they pack up and head to Calgary, where a Saturday date against the Flames begins a trip that continues to Edmonton, Vancouver and Seattle. The Wings (24-27-7) showed some mettle Thursday, especially in the first period, when they took heed of coach Jeff Blashill’s message and fought back from two early deficits.

“We stuck together,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “I really liked that Blashill challenged us yesterday. We had a hard practice, and the compete level was much better.”

WHAT HAPPENED: Detroit Red Wings rally vs. Minnesota Wild, but fall, 6-5, in shootout

The Wild did what the Coyotes did in a 9-2 victory Tuesday and the Panthers did in a 6-2 victory Saturday: Score within minutes of the game getting underway. Jakub Vrana answered. Then goalie Alex Nedeljkovic knocked the puck into his own net, and Lucas Raymond answered. That response wasn’t there the previous two outings.

“It was a point of emphasis for us to stick with it,” Larkin said. “They got one early and we responded, and we had a great first and came out with a one-goal lead. We did it on the power play, we did it five-on-five, so it was a good first.

“It was an emphasis for us. The last couple games, we really sank when the other team scored first and scored early, so I’m proud of our guys, the way we stuck in there.”

The Wings are going to miss the playoffs for a sixth straight spring, but they’ve shown progress this season, and it’s important to avoid losing that over the final six weeks. They’re a young team, and learning how much harder it is to win as opponents jockey for playoff positioning is vital.

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“One of the big things we talked about going in was making sure we handled the emotional ups and downs, and that there’s going to be things that happened that wouldn’t be good, and we have to be able to withstand that,” Blashill said. “We did a really good job of that. They scored right away and we responded. They score again and we responded well. Then they go up late in the game and we responded well.

“It’s going to be critically important as we continue to move forward that we have that mental toughness, that we show that type of fight, that we’re digging in to do everything possible to win. Can we be better? For sure. We made mistakes. But you can compete and work your way past mistakes, and we’ve done that at times this year and we did that tonight.”

Gaining Vrana after he missed the season’s first 56 games recovering from shoulder surgery has been a boon: He has three goals in two games. He scored his first goal against the Wild because he won a puck battle and scored his second because of his lightning release.

“After his first one went in,, you could see his confidence build,” Larkin said. “It just adds another dynamic to our team. It seems out of nowhere he gets a chance and it’s in the net. He’s a sniper, and that’s what we need him to do.”

Nedeljkovic has had a rough three games, but he made seven saves in overtime among 35 total. He needs to feed off that positive, as his teammates need to nourish themselves on having at least pushed back on an ugly trend of wilting.

“That’s going to be really, really important, that we continue to fight like crazy every game to win,” Blashill said, “and stay with it no matter what happens and stick up for each other.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.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 AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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