January 24, 2013 at 4:00 pm

John Niyo

Damien Brunner a net gain for Red Wings so far

Detroit -- Nobody warned him there'd be days like this.

So you'll have to forgive Damien Brunner for wondering just what he'd gotten himself into after he made his NHL debut last weekend.

The 26-year-old scoring star from the Swiss league got his first real taste of North American hockey in the Red Wings' season opener in St. Louis. And it was more than a little sour, as the Blues embarrassed their Central Division rivals with a 6-0 drubbing.

"The first game was like, 'What's going on here?'" Brunner admitted Tuesday night, following the Wings' 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars in the home opener at Joe Louis Arena. "They were all over us. And I was asking the guys afterward, 'Is that normal, or what?'"

His teammates quickly assured him it wasn't. But after three haphazard games in four nights to begin this lockout-shortened season, it's a fair question to ask, nonetheless: Is this the new normal?

The answer, of course, is that no one's quite sure what to expect in the NHL this year. Half of last season's division champions were winless heading into Wednesday night's games, along with the Los Angeles Kings, the defending Stanley Cup champions. One of the league's leading goal scorers, Daniel Winnik, is a journeyman pro who lit the lamp all of eight times last season. Fresh off a big opening-night win at Vancouver, Edmonton on Tuesday gave up six goals in the first period.

But it's here in Detroit, home to that endangered 21-year playoff streak, where the question probably carries the most weight — and worry.

The Wings' defense seems in shambles, reeling after a rash of injuries in the already-uncertain post-Nick Lidstrom era. Ian White's lacerated left leg, which might keep him out of the lineup until mid-February, is only the latest blow.

And yet it's the dormant offense — four goals in three games — that's perhaps more puzzling for Mike Babcock's team. Brunner's first NHL goal with 3.4 seconds remaining in regulation Tuesday night spared Detroit its first scoreless home opener since 1947 and a second shutout loss in three games to start 2013.

The Wings were shut out only twice in 82 games last season, when they ranked third in the Western Conference in scoring. And, no team has fared worse on the power play this season, where the Wings are 0-for-15 thus far.

Brunner's late goal actually did come with the Wings on a 5-on-4 with the goalie pulled Tuesday. But as the Joe Louis Arena crowd finally cheered the red light, Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen quickly reminded everyone that it was too little and too late, casually pointing to the scoreboard before taking a drink from his Gatorade bottle.

"It's not good," said Henrik Zetterberg, the Wings' new captain. "I guess we just gotta go back to the drawing board and work on it. I think we're gripping our sticks a little bit too hard, instead of relaxing."

It's hard to relax when you're playing a third game in 96 hours, as the Wings were Tuesday. But tired legs are here to stay with this compressed 48-game schedule, and as Babcock reminded everyone after the loss to the Stars, there's no time for excuses.

"We're like every team in the league: We need to win," he said.

Seeking scorers

For this team to win, it's going to have to score, obviously. And that puts even more pressure on the newcomer, Brunner, arguably the Wings' only coveted free-agent signing in the last two years. Though he was never drafted, Brunner emerged as an elite scorer in the Swiss league, drawing considerable interest from NHL teams last spring. He picked Detroit over Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, among others.

But while there was nothing left for him to prove in Europe, there was plenty of skepticism about how well — and how quickly — the 5-foot-10, 176-pound winger would adjust to the smaller ice surface and the more physical play. Wings general manager Ken Holland talked excitedly about his "potential" last week but was quick to admit, "I'm anxious to watch. … I don't really know what to expect."

So far, so good, I'd say. Paired on the top line with Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, Brunner ranks second in the NHL with 15 shots on goal through three games. (Zetterberg, who was credited with nine in Tuesday's loss, isn't far behind with 13.) The shots haven't produced enough goals yet, but Tuesday's late breakthrough — on the heels of Monday's highlight-reel shootout winner — should be a sign of things to come.

Help on the way

Brunner's skill level is obvious, and unlike many similar European prospects, he's not one to hang on to the puck too long. ("Those types of guys, they eventually get snuffed out," Holland said.) Brunner lets it go quickly and finds open ice to get it back, just as he did on the opening shift of the third period Tuesday night, when it took a terrific save by Lehtonen to rob Brunner of a game-tying goal.

"I still make some mistakes," said Brunner, who played a season-high 19:59 against Dallas. "But I think it's about creating scoring chances and I hope I can take that goal today to get some more confidence. Because I probably should've scored a couple (in Columbus) and earlier in the game today to get the team back. A little unlucky, but you just keep going and try to bear down."

And bear with them, I suppose. The expected return Friday of forward Darren Helm (back) and Todd Bertuzzi (illness) certainly should help up front. The thin blue line actually held its own against Dallas. And the power play can only get better — right? — though it'll be a while before we forget what it looked like with Lidstrom manning the point and Tomas Holmstrom mining the crease.

The season's less than a week old, so it's not time to panic just yet. But given the circumstances, now would be a perfect time for the Swiss import to answer the bell, and he knows it.

"If you start putting pressure on yourself, it's gonna go the wrong way," Brunner cautioned.

But, he added, "I think it's coming."

john.niyo@detnews.com

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Red Wings forward Damien Brunner, in his first NHL season, is second in the league with 15 shots through three games. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
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