Why Detroit Red Wings don’t even want to measure themselves against NHL’s elite right now

Detroit Free Press

One point isn’t much of a measuring balm for the Detroit Red Wings, not from their point of view in the standings.

The Wings have taken a tumble since they spoke of “April in the D” in mid-February, when they were in the conversation for a wild card spot. Now they’re trying to salvage what’s left of the season, which runs out in 17 games.

That they held their own at even strength in Saturday’s outing against the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning was a positive, even as the outcome was a negative.

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“We lost 2-1 in overtime,” goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic said. “It doesn’t matter if it was against these guys or against the last-place team in the league. Right now it doesn’t matter who we play. We want to win. We’re 20 or points or whatever out of a playoff spot. There’s no moral victories at this point. There’s no measuring stick. We’re not in a playoff spot and we need to be in a playoff spot. Losing isn’t going to get us there. We have to find a way to win games.

“We can take some positives, but we need to find a way to finish games to win games.”

The Wings (26-31-8) went scoreless through 10 minutes with an extra skater, a game after went scoreless through 1:41 with two extra skaters. As well as Nedeljkovic (34 saves) played, the Wings are going to struggle until they get a reliable power play.

“Certainly we had a good goaltending, and if you want to be a good team, you have to have real good goaltending,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “I think we defended better.

“We’re a bit shorthanded right now, and I thought our guys did a good job coming to play. You just have to find ways to win the game, and the glaring way is to win the special teams.”

The game fell on the 25th anniversary of the famed Wings-Colorado Avalanche ‘Fight Night,’ when Darren McCarty avenged Claude Lemieux’s dirty hit from behind on Kris Draper in the ’96 Western Conference finals. When they won the Cup that June, the Wings pointed to that game as the one that unified them, that convinced them they could win it all.

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Clips from that game highlight the fights, but the flashbacks also shine a spotlight on the disparity in talent between that squad and the one that’s limping towards the finish line this season. The ’97 roster was an exercise in reading superlatives: Nicklas Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan. The Russian Five: Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Slava Fetisov. The Grind Line: Draper, McCarty, Kirk Maltby, Joe Kocur. Tomas Holmstrom, Martin Lapointe, Larry Murphy, Mike Vernon. And behind the bench: Scotty Bowman.

Yzerman now watches over the Wings from the general manager’s suite. He knows better than anyone how hard it is to win the Cup. He waited 14 years to win his first one, and that was before a salary cap was instituted, and when the NHL comprised 26 teams, not 32. It was eight years after the 1989 draft, when the Iron Curtain enabled the Wings to snatch Fedorov in the fourth round and the lack of blanket scouting enabled them to nab Lidstrom in the third round.

The Wings have been more competitive this season than the previous two, and that has a great deal to do with the additions of Nedeljkovic, defenseman Moritz Seider and forward Lucas Raymond. They’ve added significant improvement at goaltending, defense and offense. But there’s been a 15-point drop in the standings since mid-February, and that emphasizes how much work still lies ahead for Yzerman.

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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