Why the Red Wings see glimmer of hope despite missing the playoffs again

Detroit News

Detroit — The Red Wings aren’t going to the playoffs again, though that isn’t startling information anymore.

When the Washington Capitals won Saturday afternoon, it officially eliminated the Wings from playoff participation for a sixth consecutive season.

“It’s obviously disappointing news,” said Dylan Larkin, after Saturday’s 5-4 overtime loss to Columbus. “We were close, but that doesn’t count. It’s still another season not in the playoffs.”

The Wings were close, relatively speaking, at one point. In mid-January, the Wings were five points away from Boston for the second wild-card spot and optimism was flowing.

Of course, the Bruins had played four fewer games, so the standings weren’t totally indicative of where both teams stood. But the Wings could accurately say they were in a playoff race, nearly halfway into the season, and “playoffs” and “Red Wings” haven’t been mentioned in the same sentence in a long time.

But since Feb. 14, when the Wings began the most difficult stretch of their schedule, they’ve gone 6-13-4. Chasing a wild-card spot became a dream.

Still, the Wings are taking the positive of the early season as an indication of what kind of team they could become.

“This year, we went into arenas and games expecting to win,” Larkin said. “It’s disappointing when you don’t, but when go into a building and don’t expect to win (such as two seasons ago, when the Wings bottomed out) it’s a hopeless feeling.

“This year we’ve had enough good players to go into building and expect to win and we came up short.

“But it’s definitely trending in the right direction.”

The bounce-back seasons of Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi, the dramatic impact of rookies Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond, strong return from Jakub Vrana after shoulder surgery, and late-season resurgence of Michael Rasmussen have been main story lines throughout the season.

They contribute to coach Jeff Blashill’s belief the Wings’ future is bright.

“There’s no doubt that the arc of the franchise is headed in the right direction,” Blashill said. “Three years ago we kind of bottomed out on that arc. It started obviously in my first year when we made the playoffs (2015-16), it was the first year we didn’t trade for any players. Then we started to trade away assets, and that’s just the reality of it. You’re going to arc and you’re going to hit that bottom.

“How quickly we can all get to where we want to be I can’t answer that question. It depends on the growth of the players, on some new guys coming in, a lot of things that are unknown. But the arc of the franchise is headed in the right direction.”

Blashill, whose own future with the Wings will be decided by general manager Steve Yzerman after the season, has been disappointed with the Wings’ second-half slide.

“I was happy with our growth up to that point,” Blashill said of the Wings’ standing in January. “We had surprised people and played better than what other people had thought. Obviously since then we haven’t been very good.”

One constant from Blashill and players this season has been the atmosphere at Little Caesars Arena.

Even Saturday, with two teams not headed to the playoffs and playing out the string in April, it was a lively and enthusiastic arena.

“All season the fans have been there for us, the building has been loud,” Larkin said. “It’s the most energy it’s had since it opened. It’s great to see. When we start playing well, start scoring goals and finding our way back into games, the fans are there.

“It’s not the result we wanted by missing the playoffs. But it’s been a great atmosphere all year around and we need to keep that going next year.”

NCAA champions

Three Red Wings draft picks — forward Carter Mazur (2021 third round) and defensemen Shai Buium (2021, second round) and Antti Tuomisto (2019, second round) — are NCAA champions after their Denver team defeated Minnesota State on Saturday, 5-1.

Mazur (Jackson) and Buium each had third-period assists, as Denver won its ninth NCAA title.

All three are expected to return to Denver, which tied Michigan for most NCAA championships.

Ice chips

The Wings rallied from a 4-2 deficit in the third period, tying Columbus, before losing in overtime. The Wings took too many penalties — Columbus had five power plays — but Blashill was pleased with the way the Wings rallied.

“It’s good to see we have fight there,” Blashill said. “We’ve talked lots about it, so that’s definitely a positive. It’s a game sitting there to be had, and we have to find a way to win.”

… Vrana had two more goals Saturday, giving him 10 in the 16 games since returning from shoulder surgery.

“The last few games he’s played real good hockey,” Blashill said. “He’s skated better, played more accountable. We want him to play winning hockey and the last few games he’s done a good job of playing winning hockey.”

… Saturday’s game was the 500th of Larkin’s career, and he scored his 31st goal, bringing the Wings to within a goal in the third period. But Larkin was minus-4 in the game, the Wings’ lost, and Larkin will not be putting this milestone game into his memory.

“It’s just another game,” Larkin said. “I was pretty bad and cost the team, so it wasn’t that much of a celebration. It would have been nice to finish that one up.”

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan

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