What the final month will tell us about Detroit Red Wings’ 2023 playoff hopes

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Red Wings’ next game will be one of their most telling of the season.

They host the New York Rangers on Wednesday, and while their opponent needs points for playoff positioning, the Wings need pride. They’re coming off an 11-2 loss that, they hope, will be the low point of a stretch that forced them from being within six points of a wild-card spot to being within eight points of elimination.

“We saw some growth earlier in the year and we felt like we were turning a corner,” forward Sam Gagner said Tuesday. “Then it falls off a little bit. It’s an every day league and you have to keep pushing forward regardless of what’s happened — if there’s injuries, trades, if you lose a few games. We have to find that. I’m confident in our group and ability to respond. I’m looking forward to seeing how we respond.

MORE FROM ST. JAMES: Red Wings were having a nice season. Here’s why they imploded

“When you fall out of the playoff race, there needs to be that pushback of realizing what you’re playing for. I do feel that this team has taken steps in a lot of different areas this year, and we need to continue to do that. We can’t let it fall back. If we’re going to be a team that is a playoff team next year, you have to find ways to push forward and get yourself a little closer, so that when you come back next year, there’s opportunity to keep pushing.”

It was a weird weekend for the Wings: Saturday, they put on a respectable performance against the defending Stanley Cup champions, and were in position to win until Tyler Bertuzzi’s overtime penalty led to a 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Then Sunday, with the same lineup, the pucks poured in against Pittsburgh.

“I thought Saturday, there wasn’t tons of chances both ways,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “We were able to keep them off the board for a longer period of time. On Sunday, we gave up those two goals in the first. We weren’t lacking scoring chances. And then once it was 3-0, 4-0, we mentally did not hang in there the way you need to hang in there, and then it just snowballed. Everything went in.”

In the six times  the Wings have allowed seven or more goals since Jan. 1, they’ve responded the next game with five victories and one shootout loss.

Tuesday’s practice began with Blashill addressing the team. There were also discussions within the locker room

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“We’ll kind of keep that amongst the players,”Gagner said, “but yeah, we talk a lot as a group. We realize games like that can’t happen. To a man, we understand that.

“Everyone cares a lot. When you go through stretches like this, it wears on guys and you need to find ways to build your confidence back up and keep pushing for something. That’s where our mindset has to be.”

Veteran defenseman Marc Staal is probable for Wednesday after being sidelined over the weekend. Blashill said Thomas Greiss (upper-body injury) isn’t available, so Alex Nedeljkovic projects to get his third straight start. He’s gone through a rough patch, but he’s also not had much help during the slide.

It’s to the point now for the Wings where the results matter less than how they perform. If they compete hard, if they play well defensively and create scoring chances, and still lose, so be it.

But if they fall behind against the Rangers, or any of the remaining 16 games, and fail to push back, if they allow more implosions, then they will have shown general manager Steve Yzerman that the progress they seemed to make during the first half was an illusion.

“I think for a large part of the course of the season, we were writing a story about ourselves that we were proud of,” Blashill said. “We were pushing towards competing for a playoff spot, if not attaining that. I think we were pushing toward a better tomorrow.

“For the last bit, we’ve taken giant steps backward in that. We have a good chunk of games still left, so our story as a team and as individuals hasn’t been written yet. It’s never written till it’s over. You don’t judge a season in a small chunk in either case. So let’s climb our way out of this and let’s play better hockey.”

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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