TAMPA, Fla. — As short as the runway is getting, it matters whether the Detroit Red Wings are able to take flight.
They head into Thursday’s game at the Florida Panthers with a little more air under the wings after winning, 4-3, Tuesday at the Tampa Bay Lightning. The points mattered to the Bolts, whose loss left them just one point up away from a wild card spot and a first-round date opposite the Carolina Hurricanes.
That’s for the Lightning to worry about; the Wings have their own concern. Chiefly, proving to themselves they can play competitively.
“It’s just important,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “It’s way better to win — you walk in and feel way better about yourself. But there’s lots on the line for lots of people. Ultimately we want to continue to grow and you only grow by taking steps forward and the checking, the completeness of our game, we’ve got to continue to grow in that area and I certainly thought we did that.”
It matters, even with just five games left, that they show growth in front of general manager Steve Yzerman, who flew Tuesday from Detroit to Tampa to watch in person. He’s evaluating what changes to make when the offseason begins after the April 29th finale.
The Wings (30-37-10) showed growth during the first half, and were a game above .500 as late as Feb. 13. But as games ramped up as the playoff race intensified, the Wings wilted — they didn’t defend well, and therefore struggled to score, and their goaltenders struggled. There have been brief signs of recovery, like beating Boston and winning at Winnipeg the next night, after losing six in a row, and winning last week at Carolina, and then beating the Lightning for the first time this season.
The Bolts pulled their goalie with about two minutes to play, but the Wings sacrificed to get in lanes and block shots and Thomas Greiss finished with 38 saves.
“We can take a lot of positive things out of it,” Jakub Vrana said after contributing the winning goal among his pair.
Vrana has shown growth, giving his most complete performance on Tuesday since returning 56 games into the season after recovering from shoulder surgery. He, Pius Suter and Filip Zadina look like they might be an accountable line — there’s offensive potential, but they need to show responsibility in their own zone. Their performance as a group is under increased spotlight after Dylan Larkin’s season-ending surgery on Monday.
Veteran Oskar Sundqvist scored the Wings’ first goal, showing his mettle in front of Tampa’s net. Rookie Lucas Raymond won a puck battle and scored unassisted.
The Panthers are as loaded a team as there is in the NHL, able to put a 30-goal scorer on the third line. The Wings just played them Sunday, and lost, 6-1. But they enter this game in a better mental frame from having beaten the two-time defending champions, and while the Wings have been eliminated from playoff contention since April 9, proving they can compete, that they can win, still matters.
It matters because when they get to the second half of next season, they can apply what they’ve learned this last stretch about how hard they have to play to be where they want to be: In the playoffs.
Contact Helene St. James at email@example.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 Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.