By: Will Burchfield
So often last year, Jeff Blashill, Henrik Zetterberg and the rest of the Red Wings marched up to the microphones, grimly and obediently, and lamented the team’s inability to find a way. They sounded like broken records by the dead of winter.
How refreshing it is to hear a new tune.
“When the games get tight, it does feel a lot like my first year when we were finding ways to win,” said Dylan Larkin after the Red Wings’ 3-1 win over the Sabres on Friday night. “Last year it seemed like things were going against us. It’s the way it was. But this year I think we’re not waiting for it to happen. We’re going out in the third period and finishing the job.”
Friday night was a yeoman’s effort. Though the Wings surrendered a 1-0 edge early in the third, they dug in and dominated from that point on. Tomas Tatar restored the lead about three minutes later and Larkin put the nail in the coffin with four minutes to go.
All year long, it seems, and especially since a dismal loss to the Canucks amid a six-game losing streak last month, the Red Wings have stiffened up after allowing a goal. They have tilted the ice back in their favor.
“Last year when we had the lead and they scored, we kind of stopped for a few minutes and the next thing you know they score two. This year we’re way calmer when they score. We just continue to play our system and our strategy, and so far it’s working,” said Tatar.
Friday night’s victory pushed the Wings’ record to 10-8-2 through 20 games. (They were 8-10-2 at this point last year.) That’s not quite a playoff-worthy pace, but there’s reason to believe this team can make up the difference. Its grip is firmer, more calloused.
The Wings are starting to snatch the wins that last year slipped through their fingers.
“I just feel like we are more experienced,” said Tatar.
Luke Glendening, who scored his fifth goal of the season Friday and was terrific in matching up against the Sabres’ top line, went a couple steps further.
“There’s a belief in this room that I don’t know if it was around the whole year last year,” Glendening told 97.1 The Ticket. “It’s an exciting team to be a part of.”
He pointed to the veterans, as the Red Wings’ culture dictates.
“I think it starts with the leadership in this group, like Z and Kronner and Abby, Greener, Dales and Ericsson. You can go down the list, but it starts with those guys. The belief they have in this team is trickling down to everyone,” Glendening said.
That can seem like a simple answer, the kind of intangible explanation that doesn’t really account for what’s happening. Plus, that entire group — with the exclusion of Trevor Daley — was around last year. Its presence apparently wasn’t felt.
But remember, Niklas Kronwall missed all of October and Justin Abdelkader missed all of December. And how about the veteran Glendening didn’t mention, perhaps the most important of them all? Jimmy Howard played just 26 games last season.
When healthy, he looked like a new goalie, which is to say the goalie of old. There was skepticism around his revival given the limited evidence, but Howard has put a stamp on it year. Among goalies with at least 10 games played, he ranks third in save percentage (.931) and goals against average (2.23).
The 33-year-old netminder, who’s playing deeper in his crease these days, has given the Wings a chance to win in just about every game he’s played. And more often than not, they’ve seized the opportunity.
Detroit played 60 games last season decided by two goals or fewer. They won 26 of them. This was at the heart of Blashill’s message to his team — and the media — entering this season. If the Wings could just turn a few of those defeats into wins, he believed, they’d be right back in playoff contention.
“It’s a league of tiny, tiny differences,” Blashill likes to say.
The Wings have played 14 such games this season. They’ve won seven of them. That’s nothing for which to plan a parade, but it’s an important improvement. In big moments, they’re finding more big plays.
“We can determine what happens to us,” said Blashill. “I thought we went through a large stretch of playing pretty good and losing. Well, it’s not good enough. You have to play great and win, and we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”
The Red Wings aren’t back. No, no, of course not. They’ve beaten just two winning teams — the Golden Knights and the Flames — and their blue line is an unavoidable concern. A playoff berth would constitute a surprise, and it may be a pyrrhic pursuit altogether. Each win this year takes Detroit further away from possible cornerstone defenseman Rasmus Dahlin in next year’s draft.
But the Red Wings have a culture to maintain, as GM Ken Holland so passionately contends, and last year they let it slip. The losing became routine. The air turned stale and the team grew weary.
Holland wants his young players, the ones who will carry the torch of this rebuild, to be exposed to a competitive environment. He wants them to develop winning habits.
It appears they’re in the process, which just might salvage the present.