Detroit Red Wings shake off playoff race elimination: ‘Zero doubt’ team is improving

Detroit Free Press

The weekend was marred by their elimination from the playoff race, though it was obvious it was coming. The Wings climbed within six points of a wild-card spot in mid-February, then went winless in 16 of 20 games.

“We were close but that doesn’t count,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “We’re still another season not in the playoffs. We have to string together these last games to figure out how to win games.”

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The Wings (28-34-10) host the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday in the first of three remaining games at Little Caesars Arena. Later in the week, the Wings start a slate that has them playing at the Carolina Hurricanes, at the New York Rangers, at home against the Florida Panthers, at the Tampa Bay Lightning, at the Panthers and home against the Pittsburgh Penguins. That’s a killer stretch of six straight against playoff-bound teams jostling for positioning, but performing well would give the Wings a chance to build for next season.

The Wings were above .500 in points percentage as late as Feb. 17, but as the games intensified, they faltered. Learning how to win this time of year matters.

“I was happy with our growth up till that point,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “I think we had surprised people and played better than what other people had thought. Obviously, since then we haven’t been very good. We haven’t done a good enough job for a multitude of reasons.

“I like the fact for the last three games we’ve had good fight. None of us want to be in this spot, we all want to be a team that’s fighting for a playoff spot right now. We’ve put a lot of people in positions to potentially grow and at times they have, and at times it’s gotten stagnant. Ultimately you hope as some of those young people in lots of different positions go through these experiences, they become better players on the other side of it. But in the end, we’re out of the playoffs again.”

The Wings rallied from a two-goal deficit in the third period Saturday against the Columbus Blue Jackets to force overtime before losing 5-4. Before that, a six-game losing streak ended April 5 when the Wings rallied from a two-goal deficit to beat the Boston Bruins. The next night, the Wings went into Winnipeg and beat an opponent that was trying to make the playoffs. 

“If you look at last year and a couple years before that, this year we went into arenas, we went into games, expecting to win,” Larkin said. “Yeah, it’s disappointing when you don’t, but when you go into a building and you don’t expect to win, it’s a hopeless feeling. This year we’ve had enough guys, we’ve had enough good players to go into buildings and expect to win. We came up short, but it’s definitely trending in the right direction.”

In 2019-20, the Wings were the only team eliminated from the playoff race when the NHL paused the season March 12 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Two years later, rookies Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond headline the reasons for renewed enthusiasm in the rebuild.

“There’s no doubt the arc of the franchise is headed in the right direction,” Blashill said. “We kind of bottomed out in that arc. How quickly we can all get to where we want to be, I can’t answer that question, that depends on the growth of players, on some new guys coming in, a lot of things that are unknown. But there’s zero doubt the arc of the franchise is headed in the right direction.”

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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