Detroit Red Wings ‘just expect to win a whole lot more.’ Here’s why

Detroit Free Press

SUNRISE, Fla. — One victory against a highly skilled opponent and a few victories on the road, does not a season make. But it does make a team trying to gauge its own growth feel positive.

The Detroit Red Wings will try to go for a third straight victory Thursday at the Florida Panthers, an Atlantic Division team below the Wings in the standings but considered among the NHL’s elites. That challenge looks more winnable after Tuesday, when the Wings executed a 4-2 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that has been to the Stanley Cup Final the last three years.

“I think everyone just expects to win a whole lot more,” forward Michael Rasmussen said. “You’re seeing it in games like that. Maybe in the past few years we haven’t found a way to pull that one out, so overall, that and everyone is collectively getting the job done.”

The past 10 days have given the Wings an indication of how they stack up against teams projected to be in the playoffs. Last week they lost, 4-2, to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and 4-1 to the Vegas Golden Knights. But Ville Husso had an off night against the Leafs, and the Knights scored in the opening minute and as hard as the Wings pushed, they chased all night.

The difference Husso makes was on display in Tampa, when he made 28 saves — that’s often an entire game’s worth — just in the third period. The Wings have used him in three of the last four games, but Alex Nedeljkovic will get a chance to distance himself from several shaky starts before the trip ends Saturday at the Dallas Stars.

‘IT’S MENTAL’:How Red Wings’ Alex Nedeljkovic has tried to stay sharp as goalie

It wasn’t just goaltending that earned the Wings the victory: Their penalty killing came through, they were able to roll four lines, and the defense corps was active with the puck. The power play — which clicked in the victory at Columbus — has been spotty against elite teams, but overall, the Wings have played good hockey in stretches, most of all in Tampa.

“The guys know of late that we’ve played well, very well of late,” Lalonde said. “We’ve strung together games despite losing. We had an opportunity against Toronto, played well, didn’t win. We had an opportunity against Vegas, played well, didn’t win.

“It’s tough to get wins against anyone, but we have not, in a while, beat an upper-echelon type team.”

WHAT HE LEARNED:How his Tampa Bay days have propelled Derek Lalonde to succeed as Wings coach

The Wings (13-7-5, third place in their division) aren’t likely to make the playoffs — they don’t yet have the superstar it takes to stick around past the regular season ends. But winning games against teams lower in the standings and competing against elite opponents reflects well on the changes general manager Steve Yzerman implemented last summer, when added players at every position and brought in Lalonde to implement better team defense.

“Our structure, all that stuff, it helps us,” Husso said.

Dating to the San Jose Sharks game on Nov. 17, the Wings have won four straight games on the road (twice against the Blue Jackets) after only doing so twice the first seven outings. That’s a sign of progress in a short amount of time. But beyond the record, it’s encouraging for the organization that the Wings are playing the right way against teams that are among the most skilled in the league.

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 latest book, “On the Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Draft,” is available from  Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

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