By: Will Burchfield
Down 1-0 after the first and having been outplayed by a good Maple Leafs team, the Red Wings could have mailed it in. It’s been a frustrating last few weeks, and frustration often withers into apathy.
“You look at what’s been going on lately, it’s easy to get down by one and just fold,” said Trevor Daley.
But Jeff Blashill wouldn’t let them. In the locker room between periods he demanded more from his players, who demanded more from each other, and they dug in and delivered.
Finally, the Red Wings secured a win they deserved, 3-1 over Toronto on Friday night.
“Blash came in here after the first and just said we needed to up our compete level and quit tuning pucks over,” said Danny DeKeyser.
“I didn’t think we had the same level of attention to detail, compete, and work ethic that we’ve had here over the last little bit,” said Blashill. “We talked about it between periods, and I thought our guys came out and really did a good job in those areas.”
DeKeyser tied things up early in the second and Daley scored a shorthanded goal to put the Wings ahead shortly thereafter. (It was both defensemen’s first goal of the season.) Detroit outshot Toronto 13-5 in the period, confirming that Blashill’s message was received.
“It wasn’t emotional. It was just, we have to be better than that and we’ve been way better than that,” said Blashill. “I’ve talked to our guys. We’re not going to win if we don’t do it right more than the other team. Everybody has haphazard line changes, lots of teams don’t manage the puck great — all that stuff. We can’t be like everybody else. We have to be different, and I didn’t think we were to that point.”
That Blashill didn’t peel the paint off the walls speaks to his belief in this team. Sure, that faith seems blind based on the Wings’ record, but it’s fair based on their much-advertised “process.” For all their losses of late — 10 of 11 entering Friday’s game — the Wings have actually played some pretty darn good hockey.
Blashill knew they’d get back to it in the second.
“Because we’ve got great character and we’ve done it over and over again, that’s why. Outside of the five periods against Montreal, I think we’ve played like this. We don’t have the results to show for it, I get that, but this is how we’ve played, and I just have lots of faith that we have guys that will answer the bell when called upon,” he said.
The order to bear down on Friday night didn’t simply come from the top. After Blashill left the room, the players echoed their coach. They sized one another up and acknowledged the need to be better. Like Blashill, they knew they had it in them.
“We talked about it after the first. It wasn’t good enough,” said Tomas Tatar, who delivered a crucial insurance goal in the third. “The games before, we played the right way and did a lot of good stuff. We just said we have to play the same way and build on that, and I think in the second and third we played great.”
Amidst a season in which Blashill’s grip on the team has been quietly called into question, in which murmurs have formed that his message is no longer getting through, Friday was a droplet of validation. The players are still buying what he’s selling. They’re not cutting corners, they’re not cheating for offense, they’re not deviating from his system, even as they sit toward the bottom of the East.
Excuse the phrase, but they trust the process.
“As long as we play our way and the right way, we’re a good team and we’re hard to play against,” Daley said.
After the Wings’ overtime loss to the Panthers on Monday, a game in which they were clearly the better team, Blashill talked to his players about about staying true to their identity. He didn’t want the result to poison their self-assessment. He didn’t want it to spawn doubt within their collective psyche.
“I’ve always been somebody that really feels strongly you have to make sure you don’t let the emotions of wins and losses cloud your vision of how you played,” Blashill said.
His speech to his players, most fundamentally, was about faith. And it resonated.
“Most people don’t stay with the process when you don’t get results. I believe that our guys have continued to do it and continued to stay with it. It’s tough, it’s frustrating, it’s demoralizing when you’re not getting the results. But it shows the character that we have in the locker room that we can continuously come up with the right process it takes to be successful,” Blashill said.
They came up with it again on Friday, and finally got the result. It was an important win, not solely because the Wings are desperate for points. They’ve also been desperate for proof, for tangible evidence that what they believe is true. They can rest assured, for one night at least, that their instinct isn’t wrong.
“We’ve been telling each other that we’re a good team and the results are going to go our way, so this was a big one for us tonight,” said Daley. “We needed it.”
It will be a challenge for the Red Wings to sustain this standard of play, especially as they head out on the road and their competition stiffens. Even if they do, there will be many nights they come away feeling robbed. That’s the reality for a team that doesn’t have enough to skill to consistently make a good effort count.
But the Wings are following Blashill’s lead, and doing the best they can with what they’ve got.
“You can see me smile,” said Tatar, trying not all that hard to suppress a grin. “It’s a great feeling to have a win.”