Why Detroit Red Wings relish Thanksgiving with renewed hunger, sense of fun

Detroit Free Press

There’s a sense of appreciation and hunger about the Detroit Red Wings this Thanksgiving holiday, fed by a success their coach sees as a tribute to their will to be in the conversation for a playoff spot.

They’re game to talk how far they still have to go — and to talk a little Thanksgiving fun, revealing which teammate they’d choose to go explore a new world. It’s the benefit of having shown improvement over last season, integrating a handful of new players, and buying into Derek Lalonde’s emphasis on eliminating risk.

“I think we’re starting to understand each other better, to anticipate each other a little bit more, anticipating where the puck is going to go,” Andrew Copp said. “There have been a lot of improvements, but we’ve still got a long ways to go.”

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Setting the table

A fifth of the way through the season, the Wings show improvement compared to this point last season in numerous per-game averages: Goals for (3.28 vs. 2.83), goals-allowed (3.17 vs. 3.33), power play percentage (20.9 vs. 16.7) and penalty kill percentage (79.6 vs. 77.6). One of first-year head coach Lalonde’s best traits is how calm he has been, through the five-game point streak that began the season, and through some doozy mishaps like giving up eight goals in games at Buffalo and at home to the Rangers. He’s realistic about the talent the Wings have — or rather, haven’t — and complimentary of the determination that has led to being in playoff positioning.

“It’s blocked shots, tracking, back checking, getting above plays,” Lalonde said. “All those hard things you have to do to be successful. There are nights we are just not going to out-talent a team. I was fortunate to be in Tampa where if we didn’t play our best, our big talent got us through some games. We’re not going to get many of those nights here.”

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Lalonde, who won two Stanley Cups as an assistant coach with the Lightning, has emphasized that for long-term success, the Wings have to play the right way.

“There’s a difference between winning hockey and, unfortunately, where they were at the end of last year,” Lalonde said. “It was a tough situation — depleted lineup, they had no chance of making the playoffs. What are you playing for? We talk about our ‘why’ in the room all the time, and what was the ‘why’ then? Are guys cheating for points? It’s a little tougher in those situations to put your body on the line.

“Our goal all along was improving our team defense and playing meaningful games later in the year. We’re not there yet, but hopefully we can get there.”

Setting sail

The Wings have Thanksgiving off (Lalonde, from upstate New York, has plans to see his Buffalo Bills take on the Detroit Lions at Ford Field), and while the multinational locker room means not everyone celebrates, many know the holiday’s origin involves pilgrims who had set sail from England to the new world. Quizzed on which one teammate they would bring to go off on such a search elicited answers that favored select players in particular.

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“I’d take Copper,” Oskar Sundqvist said. “He seems like he’s very educated and ready for an adventure.” That echoed Dominik Kubalik’s answer, who likewise chose the Michigan product: “Copper — he seems like a smart guy who would know everything about everything.”

Copp, on the other hand, chose Tyler Bertuzzi, not the least because of his longer hair. “He seems the most resourceful and he looks the part, for sure.” Michael Rasmussen chose Bertuzzi because “he’d be a lot of fun.”

Alex Nedeljkovic chose fellow goaltender Ville Husso, because “he’s the most like me. We’re the two most normal guys here.” Husso, though, chose David Perron, because “I’ve known him the longest,” Husso said, “and he’s a loud, talkative guy.” Perron pointed to Mark Pysyk, who is projected to return in January from off-season Achilles surgery, because “he’s had a tough go with the injury, and he’s been an absolutely great teammate, funny to be around,” Perron said.

Moritz Seider’s sense of humor also made him Joe Veleno’s choice (“I know I’d have a good time with him.”) and factored into Jake Walman’s choices.

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“I’ve got a couple,” Walman said. “I’d take Mo first because he’s always laughing. I feel like if we went exploring, we’d laugh and have a good time. The other one would be Hus, because he’s kind of woodsy, kind of smart, so I’d feel like he’d be fun, too.”

Seider chose Lucas Raymond because, “we have good chemistry, and we’re almost neighbors now, so I think we’d definitely have a good time.”

Contact Helene St. James athstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames.

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