Why it matters that reeling Detroit Red Wings find joy in their game again

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Red Wings head into their next game with a fresh reminder that joy matters.

The Wings visit Ottawa on Sunday, offering a chance to amend for losing to the Senators at home Friday. Like the Wings, the Senators are rebuilding with no playoff berth in sight this season. Unlike the Wings, the Senators played with energy the Wings have lacked as their losing streak has grown to five. The Wings were within six points of a wild-card spot in mid-February, and the tumble in the standings has taken a toll.

“There’s an emotional drain on it, and that’s the reality of it,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “We just can’t let that happen. We have a decision on how we attack every day and certainly it’s frustrating, there’s a downer to it, there’s an emotional drain to it, but we can’t allow that to happen.

“They were out of it well before us this year, and they went through their own struggles, and now they’re just kind of having fun playing hockey. We’re not. We’re trying to grind away and we have to find a way to get that joy back in our game and play with more energy.”

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There was a brief but vocal chorus of “Fire Blashill” chants near the end of Friday’s 5-2 loss at Little Caesars Arena. It was a rough outing, from a slow start to giving up a shorthanded goal to blowing a 33-second two-man power play to start the third period, when it was 1-1. The Wings have struggled with their starts on multiple nights, and that has left them chasing their opponent.

“It’s an area that we have to continue to work on,” veteran forward Sam Gagner said. “It’s the best league in the world and you have teams coming in fighting for points. Regardless of where teams are in the standings, whoever we’re playing against, we have to find a way to start on time and be a good first-period team. We want to build to be a team that this is a really hard building to come into, and it hasn’t been good enough lately.”

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The bright spot was rookie Lucas Raymond, who scored twice. But the Wings had a tough go as a team, failing to get out of their zone on numerous shifts, and not making it nearly hard enough on Mads Søgaard, a 21-year-old goalie making his NHL debut. Alex Nedeljkovic had a tough night; the fourth goal looked egregious, with Mathieu Joseph scoring on a shot Nedeljkovic could see coming. It was his 45th start and 51st appearance, and Blashill suggested that has played a role in Nedeljkovic’s struggles over the past month.

“We’ve put Alex into a heck of a position in terms of workload,” Blashill said. “He’s played more than I think we intended to. We’re asking a lot of him on an every-night basis. I think he’s like the rest of us — we all need to be better.”

The Wings (26-33-9) were coming off an overtime loss to the New York Rangers, who are in playoff position, which came after the embarrassment of losing, 11-2, at the Pittsburgh Penguins, another playoff team. It’s not that the Wings can’t play well, it’s that they can’t seem to make it last 60 minutes, much less game to game.

“You go through stretches in a season, in your career, that things feel difficult,” Gagner said. “But, I’ve said it before, adversity is a great teacher and you have to lean into it. Regardless of how we’re feeling about our game or anything emotionally, you have to go out and play and do your best, give your best effort, and feel confident. You have to work your way out of it.”

The Wings will be without Tyler Bertuzzi in Ottawa, because his unvaccinated status renders him unable to travel under current border restrictions. The Wings are 1-5 in Canada this season, with three games left across the border.

“It won’t be easy Sunday, we’re going to miss one of our energy guys in Bert, but we have to find a way to do it,” Blashill said. “We have to find a way to enjoy the challenge we have ahead of us.”

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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