Red Wings closing out home schedule against playoff-bound Penguins

Detroit News

Detroit — The Red Wings close out the home portion of their regular-season schedule Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It’s likely not the way they envisioned it happening.

In the Wings’ wildest dreams, there would be more home games coming up soon with playoff contests. But the reality of no playoffs was pretty much cemented about two months ago.

For as optimistic and promising the first half of the season was, the second half has largely been anything but. The Wings’ lack of depth, a rugged schedule, and problems defensively all contributed to the second-half swoon.

There has been one constant, though. The crowds at Little Caesars Arena have been louder than usual and have carried the Wings to an 18-15-7 record at home (15-9-3 on Feb. 14, before the slide began).

“The first half of the year, when we were really good at home, our crowd was outstanding,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “Our crowds have continued to be good. That made a huge impact. Momentum is a big thing in these games, and that made a big impact.”

Players have talked about the home-ice advantage at LCA all season, and how important it is.

“Our fan support has been incredible,” forward Sam Gagner said. “We’ve talked about it a lot amongst our group, the energy they give us at home. It’s fan appreciation day (Saturday), so we certainly want to give them something to cheer for.”

Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh caps a six-game stretch against playoff teams in which the Wings are 2-3-0. The Red Wings faced the Penguins on March 27 in Pittsburgh and lost, 11-2, in one of the more humbling and embarrassing games they’ve had in recent memory.

The Red Wings have had difficult evenings playing some of the NHL’s best, but they have also shown promise, such as Tuesday’s victory in Tampa.

In Blashill’s mind, these types of games, against Stanley Cup contenders, are a good indication of how far away — or how close — the Wings are to being a similar contending team.

“You get a chance to measure yourselves and see what you’re good enough at, what you’re not good enough at,” Blashill said. “That’s important, both as a hockey team and as individuals. If each one of us take it and look at it like a ‘How can we be better?’ approach, then it’s always valuable. That growth mindset is important.”

Gagner felt the Wings’ 5-2 loss Thursday in Florida — the Eastern Conference-leading Panthers swept all four games from the Wings this season — was a good building block.

“There are some positive things that we can look at and build off, but we still have a long ways to go,” Gagner said. “Games like this, against a team that’s going to be in the Stanley Cup conversation, it’s a good measuring stick, just a matter of playing a consistent game.

“We’re trying to find the recipe that allows us to have success and we do have it at times. We just have to keep building to make it consistent.”

Given how the Panthers didn’t even make the playoffs three seasons ago, it gives the Wings hope that turnarounds can occur quickly with good personnel decisions.

“Sometimes it can look like there’s a huge gap but really, on a night-to-night basis, it’s minor differences that ultimately make your group better,” Gagner said. “Once you start getting incrementally better, you build more confidence as a group, you create an identity. I see teams build and do it the right way and ultimately find themselves at the top of the standings.

“That’s what we want here. We have work to do. There are things that are trending in the right direction that hopefully we build on and get better.”

Twitter: @tkulfan

Penguins at Red Wings

► Faceoff: 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit

► TV/radio: BSDX/NHLN/97.1

► Outlook: The Penguins (44-23-11) are coming off a 4-0 victory Thursday over Boston, and are clinging to the third seed in the Metropolitan Division. … LW Jake Guentzel (40 goals) scored a hat trick against Boston and G Casey DeSmith had 52 saves to shut out the Bruins. … D Kris Letang (56 assists), C Sidney Crosby (52 assists), and C Evgeni Malkin (37 points, 37 games) continue rolling along.

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