WASHINGTON — Ville Husso patted Jakub Vrana on the back on the way out of the locker room, an equipment bag slung over Husso’s back.
There were smiles packed among the sticks and skates as the Detroit Red Wings turned homeward bound, their confidence buoyed by having collected eight of 10 points on a geographically challenging trek that took them across the border twice and from coast to coast.
Two weeks ago they looked like they might be in the draft lottery; now they look like they might make the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
“We know we can win in this league and we have a team that can win,” Husso said. “So, it’s just day by day, have fun and move on.”
CRUNCH TIME:Red Wings have fought for years to play big games late. How will they respond?
The Wings (27-21-8) ended the trip with a 3-1 victory over the Washington Capitals, who, along with the New York Islanders, Florida Panthers, and Buffalo Sabres are in a tight battle with the Wings for the two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference. The Wings next play Thursday at Little Caesars Arena against the New York Rangers.
The expectation is Lucas Raymond could be available after missing six games with a lower-body injury. If so, the Wings will need to activate him. Robby Fabbri hobbled after blocking a shot late in Tuesday’s game, so there was some uncertainty about his status. If the roster jam doesn’t resolve itself via an injury, one option would be to send down Jonatan Berggren, whose play has dropped off a bit and who doesn’t need waivers.
Jakub Vrana would seem to have earned a reprieve, at least. He performed well in his first game in four months, earning praise from coach Derek Lalonde.
“Jakub was good, created a couple chances, he had a couple looks. I thought he was connected with our group. In the other two zones, he did some good things, so a great step in the right direction for him.”
Vrana is a potential 30-to-40-goal scorer, the kind of player a team eyeing a playoff run looks to add as the trade deadline approaches. General manager Steve Yzerman waived Vrana in January, and could still move him by the March 3 deadline.
Earning respect:Detroit Red Wings have fought for years to play big games late
Vrana hasn’t been told if he fits into the team’s future or not, so he’s focused on what he can control.
“I’m just doing what I can do the best to help the team,” Vrana said. “I just tried to keep it simple and get my legs moving. It felt good to win here.
“That is all we focus on, how we can prepare ourselves best for the future and the upcoming games. Our heads are already onto the next game. Just doing the right things to put us in a great position to have a chance to get there.”
The Wings have won five of their last six games, and that’s without their top right winger in the lineup. They didn’t have Dylan Larkin for most of Tuesday’s game, as he was tossed midway through the first period after a high hit on T.J. Oshie. Instead it was Pius Suter who contributed two goals, and it was guys blocking shots and finishing checks and Husso being his usual reliable self.
“It was not ideal losing Larks early on, and killing seven minutes of the first 22-23 minutes,” coach Derek Lalonde said. “But I thought our guys managed it extremely well. We needed a complete effort from everybody, we needed everybody to step a little bit more and they did that and we got ourselves a good road win.”
The Wings have won eight of their last 11 games. Husso pointed to the recent five-game winning streak as something that “gave us confidence.” Suter said the Wings are confident, “but like a good one, not over confidence.”
Things can change quickly, and past the Rangers game, the Wings play the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are battling Toronto for home ice, and then two games against the Ottawa Senators, who are nipping at the Wings in the standings.
There are still 26 games to go. But their formula — have fun, move on — has them within reach of the most fun of all: Making the playoffs.
Contact Helene St. James at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.