How Detroit Red Wings maintain ‘pretty good morale’ whatever the outcome

Detroit Free Press

Twice this month the Detroit Red Wings have measured themselves against the only team to have made appearances in the last three Stanley Cup Finals — and come out ahead.

It’s a swell feeling for a team working its way out of a rebuild towards a competitive future.

“We’re trying to grow, and we still have a long ways to go,” coach Derek Lalonde said after Wednesday’s 7-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. “We are trying to judge ourselves on performance over outcome, and I think that is why the guys have stuck with it, have had some pretty good morale of late despite being 0-4-2.

“But, it’s just amazing how things change quickly. We go from answering 0-4-2 questions to this. All of a sudden we’ve taken three out of four points versus two very good teams. I am sure there will be some confidence from this.”

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The Wings beat the Bolts, 4-2, on Dec. 6 in Tampa, Florida, in a game that featured four goals pver the final six minutes. To have the mental composure to withstand a furious, late rallying attempt, and to engage in a score-fest against as skilled a team as the Lightning, is huge.

“It feels really good, like really good,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “Especially against that team, and in our division. We had a great performance. Things didn’t go our way the whole game, but we responded at every moment and we stuck together, played hard.

“As the season moves forward here after Christmas, it heats up and division games are huge. Just a great effort by us to stay in the fight and show a lot of pushback against a team like that.”

Larkin had two goals and an assist, even as he is playing with a right hand that is sore from being hit by a puck Dec. 13. He was also part of two of the Wings’ finest minutes in the last home game at Little Caesars Arena before the Dec. 24-26 Christmas break, when Joe Veleno and Ben Chiarot were called for penalties seven seconds apart. That left the Wings facing a 5-on-3 for 1:53, shortly after the Bolts had scored.

“That was big, especially after they scored early,” Larkin said. “We killed it off, got some big saves; it’s a hard task with a full two minutes, pretty much, against that unit. We did a good job and we started to get engaged in the battle and we stuck together. As the game got heated, we didn’t shy away and we didn’t back down.”

Ville Husso put on his usual reliable effort, making 34 saves, 10 of them during Lightning power plays. It was as good a night as the penalty killers have had all season, frustrating the Lightning four times.

“Our penalty kill all night was huge,” Lalonde said. “That [first one] was big because they had scored earlier, so we needed something for some momentum. But all four kills were great. I really liked the first kill in the third. A team like that, you give them four looks, one is probably going to end up in the back of the net. Not only were they good kills, they were momentum kills. They gave us a boost.”

The Wings (14-11-7) have had some bumpy stretches, but even in some of the losses — like the 4-3 overtime game at Washington, and the 3-2 overtime one in Dallas — they’ve played well. The Wings don’t have the superstar player that contenders generally have — they still need more skilled players — but they never look lost during games, like they did at times a couple seasons ago.

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“We were sitting here on an 0-4-2 stretch, but anyone who has watched us, we have been better than that,” Lalonde said. “We were tied going into the third, and been unable to finish it off recently, and today we did and it feels pretty good.”

That it came against the Bolts, who fell just short last spring in their bid for a third straight Cup, is encouraging to a team trying to get back to the playoffs.

“I respect what they have done in the past but when you are on the ice, you have to play hard,” Larkin said. “It’s fun to play in those games and to be in the battle. Both times we played them, we’ve been in it and it’s been fun.”

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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