Niyo: Bad breaks aside, nothing ‘fragile’ about Wings’ fast start

Detroit News

Detroit — It’s still early, but this much seems clear: The Red Wings are in a better place now.

That’s not just in the standings, either, where Detroit — off to its best start in more than a decade — sits in second place in the NHL’s toughest division nearly a month into the regular season.

It’s almost everywhere, really.

And even on the nights where you can’t see it on the scoreboard — take Tuesday night’s 3-2 shootout loss to Montreal, for example — you can see it in so many other ways.

It’s apparent in the structure and the systems in the neutral zone, in the simple plays being made by the Wings’ defensemen in their own end, and often in the goalie (Ville Husso) quietly making save after save in net.

More and more now, you can even see it in the underlying analytics, too. Including the game-flow charts that paint a picture of what’s happening with the puck through possession metrics. Where you used to see a few peaks and some long, deep valleys on Detroit’s side, now you’re beginning to notice some plateaus.

“I think our whole game, we kind of have a baseline of how we play,” said Dylan Larkin, who played through some near-historic lows in recent years as this franchise rebuild bottomed out.

And when I asked the Wings’ captain Tuesday night how much that baseline has been elevated this season, he didn’t hesitate with his answer.

“Oh, a lot higher,” he said.

His new head coach, Derek Lalonde, wholeheartedly agreed after another third-period comeback Tuesday gave his team at least a point for the fourth consecutive outing (3-0-1) and the 10th time in 13 games this season.

New faces paying dividends

With 17 points overall, this is the Wings’ best start to this point since 2010-11, when they finished with 104 points and won their last division title. And for a team that hasn’t even topped 80 points in a season since 2015-16 — the last time Detroit made the playoffs — even a brief early-season flourish like this matters, building confidence and creating buy-in for a new staff.

Particularly when you consider all the new faces Steve Yzerman added to the roster this summer, and the injuries that have played havoc with Lalonde’s lineups since training camp. He’s missing a handful of regulars at the moment, and nine of the 20 players in uniform Tuesday weren’t with the team last season.

Yet already there’s some chemistry building here, it seems, as evidenced by the three wins in four days last week. Capped by a Sunday matinee at Madison Square Garden where the Wings bounced back from a 2-0 first-period deficit to beat the New York Rangers, 3-2, in overtime.

“That’s what I’m talking about as the baseline,” Larkin said. “With that many new guys, new systems, it finally feels like we’re into the season, and we’re in a rhythm. I think that’s important. But the biggest thing for our group is when we compete, block shots and play together, we get results.”

The fact that they’re getting them now would seem to bode well for when they get the rest of their players back on the ice. Or some of them, anyway.

The Wings have been playing without their two best goal scorers in Tyler Bertuzzi (hand) — he’s expected back next week on the team’s West Coast swing — and Jakub Vrana (personal reasons), and a third scoring-line winger, Robby Fabbri, is still working his way back from a torn ACL in March.

But they’ve gotten a scoring lift from free-agent additions Dominik Kubalik (six goals, 10 assists) and David Perron (five goals), consistent production from Larkin (six goals, nine assists) and a recent surge from Lucas Raymond (five goals in the last six games), among other contributions.

Doing it with defense

Still, it’s how they’re getting these results that probably matters even more. It’s largely due to the way they’re playing defensively, and in the net, the two areas where the Wings struggled so mightily in recent years.

Jeff Blashill’s team finished 31st in the NHL last season allowing 3.78 goals per game, and the Wings’ goalies combined for a disappointing .897 save percentage. This year, they’re 11th in team defense (2.85 GA/G) and eighth in save percentage (.915) even after an ugly week at the end of October that saw Detroit give up 19 goals combined in losses to New Jersey, Boston and Buffalo.

They’ve allowed just five regulation goals in the four games since, much to Lalonde’s credit.

“I think ‘Newsy’ does a good job to kind of reset us after those type of losses,” said Perron, referring to the coach by his longstanding nickname. “That could’ve gone many ways, obviously, with a team (that was) maybe a bit fragile in the past.”

That’s not what Larkin sees presently, however, and he would know, having endured it all over the last several years, from the defensive meltdowns and third-period collapses to some interminable losing skids.

“We’ve had nights where we haven’t been on this season, but I think this past week … we’ve competed,” Larkin said. “It speaks to our depth and veteran players that have been around for a while. It doesn’t feel like we’re really reaching for depth.”

Players like Matt Luff and Austin Czarnik, who chipped in with key goals the last two games, have kept the forward lines rolling the past couple weeks. And while Luff is now out for a few months after taking a brutal hit from Montreal’s Juraj Slafkovský in Tuesday’s game — Slafkovsky, the rookie No. 1 overall pick, drew a two-game suspension from the NHL — the Wings expect to have Oskar Sundqvist back Thursday against the Rangers.

Beyond that, though, they expect to play the way they’ve been playing — mucking up the neutral zone, limiting the high-danger chances and sticking to the plan, even when things go awry. What pleased Lalonde most Tuesday night was the “maturity” his team showed in falling behind twice but not falling out of their defensive system. By staying true to “what we’re trying to do and trying to be, and not chasing it,” as he put it.

It’s a recipe that’s working so far. Maybe even better — or at least more quickly — than the head coach would’ve guessed, given the circumstances.

“In some ways, I’m a little surprised,” Lalonde admitted. “It’s just a small sample size. We’re still gonna go through some bumps. But I think the will is good.”

And where there’s a will, maybe there’s a way to keep this going.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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