Not so merry, gentlemen: Onus on Detroit Red Wings to jolly up before Christmas

Detroit Free Press

There are three games standing between the Detroit Red Wings and, as their captain put it, a chance to feel good headed into Christmas.

They have managed mostly to spin a pretty jolly tale the first two months of the season, showing growth in key areas such as five-on-five play and team defense. But 30 games in, they are also showing how far they have to grow, even accounting for missing key players. They take on the Washington Capitals on Monday in D.C., burdened by a five-game losing streak that disappoints all the more for tarnishinga good first six weeks to the season.

“Early in the year, we were getting the big save at the right time, the big kill, the big goal,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “Right now, it’s not happening for us, and we have to find a way to get that back.”

Larkin played in Saturday’s 6-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators but his effectiveness was hampered by injuring his right hand when he was hit by a puck Dec. 13. At least he missed only one game. The offense the Wings had hoped to have has been curbed by losing Tyler Bertuzzi to broken-hand surgery twice, Jakub Vrana being gone for two months in the players assistance program, and Robby Fabbri recovering from off-season knee surgery.

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Absences, though, are part of the grind of an 82-game season. It’s on the players who are available that an 11–5–4 record at Thanksgiving has turned into a 13-11-6 record entering Christmas week.

“Whether it’s someone scoring a big goal, or a big hit or a big fight that changes the game, whatever it may be, whatever you bring to the lineup, we need to have more than that,” Larkin said. “Our goaltending has been good all year, our team play has been good, our penalty kill has been good for the most part. We just have to find a way to get it back. I think it really starts with just a solid, 60-minute effort against Washington and maybe a 2-1 or 1-0 game where we get two points and then we get that good feeling back.”

With general manager Steve Yzerman strengthening the Wings at every position last summer, the Wings were expected to improve this season. They aren’t projected to make the playoffs, but they are expected to be competitive.

“The one difference, hopefully, is our five-on-five play has been pretty good,” coach Derek Lalonde said. “Even with the previous four losses — you take out the Florida game — our five-on-five play has been excellent in some areas. So, some things to go back on, some things to build on, but again, special teams.”

Special teams have tarnished the past five games: The power play has converted on just two of 19 opportunities while the penalty kill has allowed six goals on 18 tries.

Lalonde said one easy remedy for the penalty kill “is being much more disciplined.”

Lalonde has been commendably even-keeled in his first year as head coach. Coming to Detroit from the Tampa Bay Lightning, he knows first hand what a Stanley Cup-caliber team looks like, and that the Wings do not look like one. When they began the season on a five-game point streak, he talked about their record probably not reflecting where the team really is at, growth-wise.

Saturday’s loss so squarely came down to special teams — the Wings got one goal off their seven power plays, while the Senators scored three times while the Wings were killing penalties and twice while the Wings had man advantages – that it clouded much other judgment. But Lalonde said the power play, which has gone 5-for-38 (13.2%) since Nov. 28, “has been heading down this path for a little bit.”

In that same span, the Wings have gone 2-6-2 and have been outscored, 35-22; compare that to the first 20 games, when the Wings went 11-5-4 and outscored opponents 65-60, and the power play was at 23.3% and the penalty kill 82%. Larkin led the team with with 23 points the first 20 games; the past 10 games, it’s defenseman Filip Hronek with seven points. Lucas Raymond, a top-line player and power play regular, has three points in the past 10 games, the same as defenseman Moritz Seider.

The Wings need to get back to managing the puck and reducing risky plays, as they were earlier in the season. They don’t have the skill level to outscore their mistakes. It’s a tough stretch ahead before the holiday break that runs Dec. 24-26, with games at the Capitals, home against the Lightning (Wednesday), and another date with the Senators (Friday in Ottawa). Larkin said the Wings “haven’t really played our game yet,” since a 2-1-1 trip mid-December. That should lead to a sense of urgency as a new week beckons.

“We have three games before Christmas,” Larkin said, “so we have to really go into Christmas feeling good about our game.”

Contact Helene St. James at Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames.

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