Nashville — Strange to call Tuesday’s game a must-have game, considering where the Red Wings are in the standings, far enough from the playoff cutline to make it highly unlikely getting there, yet tantalizingly possible with a lengthy win streak.
But it was, in a huge way. Playing an injury-riddled Nashville team that’s also dreaming of the playoffs, this was a fair opportunity for the Wings to walk away with two important points.
Instead, a heartbreaking 2-1 loss, on a night when four of the six teams ahead of the Wings in the chase for a wild-card spot all lost (the other two didn’t play), this defeat really stung.
“This is a game we had to win,” forward Andrew Copp said.
Entering Wednesday’s schedule, the Wings (69 points) stood seven points from the New York Islanders and nine away from Pittsburgh. Four other teams were between the Wings and Islanders. The Wings only have 15 games left, so the math is beginning to look dire.
The Wings need victories. They can’t afford many more losses, at all.
“Any loss is frustrating, especially one at this time of year,” defenseman Ben Chiarot said. “We know if we can string a couple games together here, we’re right there (in the standings). That’s our focus for the next few weeks.”
What was frustrating Tuesday was the fact the Wings did plenty good enough things to likely earn a victory. They were arguably the better team at even strength. They scored a power-play goal (including the third in three straight games by recent recall Alex Chiasson). The penalty kill stopped Nashville five times.
But, it’s all that work on the penalty kill that was also a factor that worked against the Wings, coach Derek Lalonde said.
“We spent 10 minutes in the box,” Lalonde said. “It was a great job by our penalty kill, we went five-for-five, but the fact we were a much better team five-on-five tonight, that’s 10 minutes of the game we couldn’t get rhythm in our game. Those stretches of five-on-five, lines were rolling, we had a good rhythm, and it could have been a much different outcome (with more even-strength time).”
With the playoff dream slipping away, there might be a tendency for teams to lose their hunger. But, watching the Wings largely outplay league-leading Boston in two games last weekend, and their effort against Nashville, the Wings clearly aren’t the team easing up.
“They’ve shown that with their compete (level) and their play,” Lalonde said. “Now, if that tails off, then we have a different story and maybe a different approach. But, there has been very little tail-off from our group. It’s been good, really good.
“I’m just happy we are playing the right way. That stretch around the (trade) deadline where we didn’t play well, we probably felt sorry for ourselves a little bit. But, we’ve got our group now, and we’ve got guys slotted correctly; we have some rhythm with our group.
“I just want (us) to play — and the right way — and for the most part, over these last four games, we have. It’s a little frustrating (Tuesday) we I felt we deserved a better outcome, at least a point out of this game.”
The Wings don’t play again until Saturday, when they host defending Stanley Cup-champion Colorado. With 15 games left, the Wings’ goal is to stay in the playoff chase as long as mathematically possible and keep playing games that have importance.
Nobody wants games that simply determine draft-lottery odds, and mean nothing toward the playoffs.
“That is not the NHL; that’s not fun,” Copp said. “We have to find a way to make these meaningful towards the end.”
The Wings reassigned forwards Austin Czarnik and Matt Luff to Grand Rapids.
Czarnik and Luff are likely to play for the Griffins Thursday in Cleveland. It’s likely one, at least, could be recalled by the Wings if Robby Fabbri (lower-body injury) still isn’t ready to play Saturday.
Luff was recalled for the Nashville game, given the fact that several Wings forwards are nursing injuries, but wasn’t needed to play.
Czarnik played in three games replacing Fabbri, and didn’t score, but was effectively centering the fourth line.