Detroit — In a way, some of the younger Red Wings are heading into final exam time.
There’s been a lot of lessons learned during the regular season, but now as they head into these final 18 games, it’s a good opportunity to show what they’ve learned.
There won’t be any playoffs for the Red Wings this season. So it’s these final weeks, against talented playoff teams such as Tampa, Florida, Boston, Carolina, Pittsburgh and the like, that the Wings can show they’ve learned what it takes to be competitive this time of year when the games are a little more difficult to win.
“We have a lot of guys who are trying to prove they can help this team and organization start winning on a more regular basis,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “Through the early part of the year, the first half, we were able to keep hovering around .500 and stay in the mix, and now we’ve fallen off that.
“With injuries, guys are in prominent roles, and are you going to help us win or just go out and play. There’s a huge difference.”
Playing against Tampa and Pittsburgh on consecutive days this weekend, the Wings will face many of the top offensive players in the NHL. The opportunities to shelter young players from the formidable head-to-head matchups will be few and far between.
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“Opposing coaches are looking and thinking ‘can these young guys handle it’,” Blashill said. “We’re not going to be perfect, but hopefully over the course of these 18 games, guys take more steps forward than back.”
It is a different style of play, generally, throughout the league this time of season.
“Ramped up,” said Blashill, a favorite term for these final weeks. “Everything gets ramped up. Playoff type of hockey, not loose at all, and turnovers will crush you more than early in the season. Scoring seems to go down.
“You have to make sure you play winning, efficient hockey. Create offense, without giving up too much (defensively).”
Tampa will skate into LCA having lost six of its last eight games and fallen into a wild-card playoff position.
The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions lost Thursday 3-2 in Boston, in a playoff type of battle. The Lightning have had trouble scoring goals, and there have been more leaks than usual defensively.
But Blashill, predictably, isn’t taking Tampa lightly.
“Certainly we know Tampa is a great team, they’re back to back Stanley Cup champions for a reason,” Blashill said. “They’ve added significant pieces at the deadline. They’re in a dog fight in terms of who is able to secure what spots. It’s up for grabs.
“Last time we played them, they lost to Pittsburgh the night before and we got an angry Tampa team that night as well (Tampa won 3-1). We have stay disciplined and out of the box because their power play is lethal.”
Blashill ruled out goaltender Thomas Greiss for the weekend, after Greiss was hurt while getting bowled over in the crease Thursday on Long Island against the Islanders. The Wings are likely to recall goaltender Calvin Pickard from Grand Rapids.
Blashill also said defenseman Marc Staal is questionable to play, and forward Givani Smith continues to be day to day after missing Thursday’s game.
Forward Michael Rasmussen missed Friday’s practice with an illness, but Blashill anticipates Rasmussen will play against the Lightning.
Forward Mitchell Stephens (lower-body) continues to practice, but when Stephens might return remains unclear. Stephens was hurt in November and has missed a majority of the season.
“I don’t have a timeline yet, we just have to keep measuring his ramp up in terms of where he’s at,” Blashill said. “He keeps getting closer. It depends on how quickly he can get his body into a spot where he can play a hockey game.”
Lightning at Red Wings
►Faceoff: 12:30 Saturday, Little Caesars Arena.
►Outlook: The Lightning (39-18-6) have lost six of eight games and have fallen into a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference…C Steven Stamkos (29 goals, 67 points) is having an impressive season, while G Andrei Vasilevskiy (32-14-4, .920 SVS) remains a steadying force.