Detroit — There was some huffing and puffing, no question about it.
The Red Wings returned to practice Tuesday after the NHL’s four-day holiday break, and the results were probably what you’d expect.
Some renewed enthusiasm after being away for a few days. But some loss of conditioning, too.
“You could tell they were re-energized,” coach Derek Lalonde said. “Practice was sharp and crisp for having four days off. But, you saw toward the end of practice we were tired, which was understandable and is something you have to fight through a little bit.”
But, with the extra work in practice, the hard skating, it was all worth it to spend a few days away from the rink and not have to concentrate on hockey.
“It felt good to get a couple days off,” forward Lucas Raymond said. “After a couple of days, though, you start wanting to come back and playing. But, it’s huge, just to enjoy the time with family and friends and get your mind off hockey and then dialing it back in again.”
The Wings, if you remember, ended the pre-break schedule with an impressive 7-4 victory over Tampa Bay. Friday’s game in Ottawa, which was supposed to be the finale before the break, was postponed until February 27 because of the harsh, dangerous weather in Ottawa.
At the break, the Wings (14-11-7, 35 points) find themselves six points behind Tampa for third place in the Atlantic Division and an automatic playoff berth, and seven points behind Washington for a wild-card spot (with four fewer games played than Washington).
The victory over Tampa ended a six-game winless streak, a skid the Wings can’t revisit or duplicate if they harbor any hopes of making the playoffs.
“Consistency,” Raymond said, of what’ll be the key for the Wings. “A lot of it is up to us. I still feel if we play the way we’re capable of playing, we can beat any team in this league. It’s just about us doing it on a consistent basis and not get the dips like we got not too long ago, and to be able to find ways to win games.”
Lalonde was impressed with the way the Wings dealt with the losing streak and never got too down emotionally.
“Our guys were competing and playing with structure and doing a lot of what we asked of them,” Lalonde said. “It just wasn’t good enough to get the full two points in a lot of those (games).
“Any mental break is a good break. You can knock a lot of things with our guys, but their attitude, work ethic and approach has been pretty consistent, and that’s what has kept us afloat to be competitive.”
Vrana heads to Grand Rapids
The Wings sent forward Jakub Vrana to Grand Rapids for a three-game conditioning stint.
Vrana played the first two games of the NHL season, then went on the NHL/NHLPA players assistance program, where he was away from hockey for two months.
Vrana returned to practice within the last two weeks, but the Wings wanted to make sure Vrana was in game shape before putting him into an NHL game.
“We’re excited,” Lalonde said. “The plan now is to play three games for them and then we’ll re-evaluate and go from there.”
The Griffins have games in Rockford on Wednesday and Milwaukee on Friday, before hosting Milwaukee on New Year’s Eve.
That could possibly make Vrana ready to rejoin the Wings on January 4 when New Jersey visits Little Caesars Arena.
Another player who could rejoin the Wings for that game against the Devils is forward Robby Fabbri.
Coming off knee surgery, Fabbri has yet to play this season. But January 1 has been a soft timeline for a return, and Fabbri has been increasing his workload in practice daily.
“We’re hoping to have Fabbri after the New Year, so that New Jersey game is a possibility,” Lalonde said.
With so many bodies returning, though excited about having a rather full lineup, Lalonde isn’t thinking too far ahead.
“We have to get there,” Lalonde said. “We’ve had all this talk before and we’ve had some bodies go down. We haven’t had the luxury of close to a full roster all year long, but our guys have handled it well.
“It’s nobody’s fault (the injuries). You start doing that (projecting lineups) and then there’s no sense doing it. It’ll be a good problem if we can actually get there.”
Lalonde said Ville Husso will get one of the starts, either in Pittsburgh (Wednesday) or Buffalo (Thursday), with either Alex Nedeljkovic or Magnus Hellberg getting the other start.
Lalonde doesn’t want to use Husso in both games.
“He’s already done it this year (played consecutive nights) but we’re starting to flirt with the uncomfortable workload,” Lalonde said.
With Vrana and Fabbri arriving in the lineup soon, the Wings are likely to need a roster spot one of either Nedeljkovic or Hellberg currently occupies.
“We’ll probably re-evaluate where our goalie situation is (after these two games),” Lalonde said. “The reality of all these forwards potentially coming back is we may not have that luxury of the roster spot and carrying three goalies. We’ll get through (the next two games) and re-evaluate where our goalie situation is.”
… The Wings are obviously planning on playing in Buffalo Thursday, but last weekend’s snowstorm there has shut down the city. There’s a chance the game could be postponed.
“The issue would be getting into town for us,” Lalonde said.
Red Wings at Penguins
▶ Faceoff: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh
▶ TV/radio: BSD/97.1
▶ Outlook: The Penguins (19-9-5) went into the holiday break winners of eight of their last 10 games. The Penguins returned to game action Tuesday against the New York Islanders; this will be their first game against the Wings this season. Centers Sidney Crosby (19 goals, 43 points) and Evgeni Malkin (11 goals, 33 points) and defenseman Kris Letang (2 goals, 16 points) continue to be the Hall of Fame core the Penguins revolve around.