Importance of finishing strong remains with Wings, despite playoff elimination

Detroit News

Detroit — Nothing is going to change these last four games for the Red Wings.

There aren’t any curveballs to the lineup. No prospects are being promoted. No playing time is being shifted around. No one is resting any injuries, and the importance of these games hasn’t been diminished.

They aren’t making the playoffs for a seventh consecutive year. But the Wings feel like they’ve turned a corner this season, and they’ll play out these final four games like nothing has changed.

“We’ve been realistic on where we’ve been at (from a playoff perspective) for, maybe, since the trade deadline,” coach Derek Lalonde said. “We’re not going to change anything, and I don’t think the guys’ mindset will change.

“We’ll just keep pushing forward these last four games and continue to play the right way and give ourselves a chance.”

The fact both Florida and the New York Islanders won Thursday officially eliminated the Red Wings from the playoffs, who lost, 7-6, in a shootout to Buffalo.

Where, or when, did the Red Wings’ season turn?

It’s easy to point to Feb. 23, after the Wings defeated the New York Rangers, 4-1. The Wings were in playoff position and seven games over .500 (28-21-8).

But the Wings were shut out by Tampa two nights later, then lost two consecutive games in Ottawa by a 12-3 margin.

Since that Rangers game, the Wings have gone 7-12-2. Trading away Tyler Bertuzzi, Filip Hronek, Jakub Vrana and Oskar Sundqvist, along with season-ending injuries to Michael Rasmussen, Robby Fabbri and Filip Zadina all impacted the roster.

“I was really proud of our group to hang in there as long as we did,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “I don’t think you could foresee the way things would go after the (trade) deadline. Not many teams took a hold of those last two wild-card spots. It still was a battle.”

In recent days some Wings have pointed to a pair of losses to Philadelphia and a defeat to St. Louis (both teams out of the playoff picture) over the last month as missed opportunities to earn points. But Lalonde wouldn’t necessarily go along that stream of thinking.

“Be careful playing that type of game because we beat Toronto twice, we’ve beaten Tampa twice, we’ve beaten the (Boston) Bruins within the last couple of weeks, and we beat Carolina,” said Lalonde, naming the best teams in the East. “You start doing that type of game, we’re probably where we are belong and deserve to be. It’ll be hard to look back and judge this team. We were above the playoff line, around the deadline, and then we’re not the same team.”

More: Playing in Grand Rapids proved to be beneficial for Red Wings’ Edvinsson

The two blowout losses in Ottawa, on consecutive nights, also weren’t keys in Lalonde’s way of thinking.

“We would have bounced back,” said Lalonde, had the Wings maintained their roster. “We have, despite losing half of our lineup. When you look at Ottawa, it’s no different than Buffalo. We sold everything (at the deadline) and Ottawa added a super defenseman (Jakob Chychrun) and we’re one point behind them (in the standings). That speaks volumes.

“Be careful about framing those two games. It’s an 82-game season for a reason.”

That type of bounce-back mentality the Wings showed after the trade deadline, they showed again Thursday.

Twice the Wings rebounded from two-goal deficits to salvage a point in the standings, taking the game to a shootout.

That single point gave the Wings 80 points for the season — the most they’ve earned since putting together a 93-point season in 2015-16, their last playoff appearance.

“It’s certainly the closest we’ve been (to the playoffs) in a long time,” Larkin said. “You saw the emotion around the trade deadline and that stung our locker room for a while. It took a few weeks to dig ourselves out of that and kind of feel normal again. It’s hard when you lose that many guys, but the guys who’ve come up, and we’ve had a lot of injuries as well, have done a great job battling.”

Facing a desperate Buffalo team Thursday, and now playing three consecutive teams that are either battling to get into the playoffs or lock down higher seedings, said Lalonde, is exactly what the Wings want.

“I like the fact that of late we’ve been playing some of these teams, they are fighting for their playoff lives, if you will, and it’s made us join the fight — or it’s not going to go well,” Lalonde said. “We’ve done a pretty good job of it.

“(Saturday) will be great. We’re playing a real good Pittsburgh team that’s fighting for their playoff lives (one point outside the wild-card spot). The superstar power they have, the difference-makers they have, we’ll get their best and it’ll force us to go to another level of our game.”

Lalonde credits the character of the roster, along with the leadership, for maintaining the Wings’ determined focus this final month. Lalonde also feels as if the Wings benefited from a stabilized lineup after the deadline, knowing who was going to be in the lineup without any more trade rumors or speculation.

“We got to settle in with our group, even after the deadline and the injuries and call-ups, and we got our guys that we are going forward with,” Lalonde said. “They were going to keep battling like they have, and that comes from the room.”

One of the goals the Wings set right after training camp was to play meaningful games as deep into the season as they could. The Wings have been mathematically eliminated weeks before the end of the season in recent years, making much of the final weeks meaningless.

But taking it into the 78th game this season was the exact accomplishment this roster wanted to attain. Lalonde feels that will help this maturing roster in the years ahead.

“It’s a huge development,” Lalonde said. “Guys need the experience, need the important games and you want to play significant games as long as possible. We were all realistic that our playoff hopes kind of faded a little ways back.

“But they, as a group, they decided to make these important games and that’ll go a long way.”

Husso starting

The one lineup issue that may have been in question was goaltending, but Lalonde confirmed Friday that Ville Husso will get the start Saturday against Pittsburgh.

Husso has been bothered with a lower-body injury for much of March and missed two weeks, but he returned Tuesday and blanked Montreal, 5-0.

But Husso allowed six goals on 36 shots against the Sabres. With four games in six days to conclude the season, there was a thought Husso may sit against the Penguins.

“He’s been responding fairly well,” Lalonde said of the injury issue Husso has been dealing with.

Ice chips

Lucas Raymond had three assists Thursday for his 10th multi-point game and third three-point performance of the season.

Raymond earned his 100th NHL point, and at 21 years, nine days of age, became the third-youngest player in franchise history to reach 100 career points, following Steve Yzerman (19 years, 174 days on Oct. 30, 1984) and Gordie Howe (20 years, 350 days on March 16, 1949).

… Jonatan Berggren and Simon Edvinsson each scored a goal Thursday and continue to impress this late in the schedule. Edvinsson will only play two more games, likely the two home games, so as not to use the first year of his three-year entry-level contract.

“It’s great experience for those guys,” Larkin said of these late-season games. “Berggy has been with us a little bit longer than Simon, but I’ve been really impressed with both those guys. They’ve come in and just worked. It’s exciting for the future.”

Penguins at Red Wings

▶ Faceoff: 1 p.m. Saturday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit

▶ TV/radio: ABC/97.1

▶ Outlook: The Penguins (39-30-10) are one point away from an Eastern Conference wild-card spot, so each of their three remaining games are crucial. The Wings have won both games against the Penguins this season, one in overtime. Sidney Crosby (57 assists, 88 points) and Evgeni Malkin (56 assists, 81 points) continue to lead offensively.

Twitter: @tkulfan

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