Detroit -- The Red Wings were in no position to complain about injuries Thursday night.
Not after a 3-2 loss to Columbus at Joe Louis Arena that was as crushing — and perhaps as telling — as any they've endured in this lockout-shortened season.
And certainly not after watching Blue Jackets forward Artem Anisimov strapped to a stretcher and wheeled off the ice following a frightening fall in the second period that hushed another antsy sellout crowd of 20,066 for several minutes.
But while there was some encouraging news after the game regarding Anisimov, there were only discouraged, frustrated faces in the Wings' dressing room after another blown lead — Detroit was up 2-0 less than 3 minutes in — resulted in the team's fifth consecutive defeat.
"We gave up two goals in the third period and we lost," coach Mike Babcock said, surveying a stat sheet that couldn't fully explain this one. "We had to win here. It's just one of those games you've got to win. … We can make all the excuses we want, but the bottom line is we've got to find a way to win."
Especially at home against Columbus, the NHL's worst team coming in and one that'd lost six in a row on the road and was 5-29-2 all-time at Joe Louis Arena prior to Thursday's faceoff.
No, this was as ugly as it gets for the Wings — in a season that threatens to get uglier still, if they're not careful — and there was no hiding the disappointment afterward.
Just as there was no hiding the fear while Anisimov lay motionless on the ice after going down awkwardly behind the Detroit net. His head thunked hard on the ice and absorbed an inadvertent elbow from Kyle Quincey, who fell on top of him. But Anisimov never lost consciousness and was "alert and stable" at Detroit Medical Center, where he was being kept overnight for observation, coach Todd Richards said.
Quincey, meanwhile, limped to the bench after rolling his left ankle in the collision, then headed to the dressing room. His night was done, and his name added to a seemingly endless list of injured Wings, who continue to "scratch and claw" — as Babcock almost wishfully puts it — but are running dangerously short on bandages to stop the bleeding.
Thursday's game was an awful start to a critical three-game homestand for the Wings, who began the night in ninth place in the Western Conference standings, a lost tiebreaker outside of a playoff spot. They already failed to take advantage of the friendliest third of their 48-game schedule, and now comes the difficult part, in so many ways.
Henrik Zetterberg was preaching the need to "stay positive" afterward — "We've just got to turn it around," the new captain said, well aware that too many heads are spinning around him — but that's a harder sell when you look at the team he's leading right now.
Already missing a half-dozen regulars from the lineup — "I don't care about that stuff," Babcock insisted Thursday morning — they finished this game with five weary defensemen and another personnel headache for general manager Ken Holland.
The Wings lost a league-high 104 man-games to injury through the first third of the season. (By contrast, the Blue Jackets had lost 34.) And while the Wings got Jan Mursak back in the lineup Thursday for the first time since the season opener, they still were without four of their top nine forwards.
Another lead, wasted
The Wings did score on two of their first three shots on goal Thursday, with Damien Brunner capitalizing on a giveaway just 18 seconds after the opening faceoff and Valtteri Filppula deflecting a Brian Lashoff shot barely 2 minutes later.
But rather than pour it on, they piled on and, said Babcock, "I thought we started fooling around a little bit." With the puck and without it, actually. And after Jordin Tootoo drew an instigator penalty, jumping in to steal Jonathan Ericsson's fight with Derek Dorsett, the Blue Jackets' wasted little time cutting that quick lead in half.
Detroit held that advantage until the third period, when Dorsett — on his way to a Gordie Howe hat trick, broken nose included — tied it at 5:03 of the period. The Wings' power play fired some more blanks after that. ("Our power play has been nonexistent," Babcock said earlier in the day. "Not inconsistent — nonexistent.") And when Brunner's blocked shot turned into a 3-on-2 breakaway the Wings' botched in the final minute, well, you've memorized the script by now, right?
Vinny Prospal's spinning backhander, off a pretty feed from Canton's James Wisniewski, one of the players the Wings balked at via trade and free agency the past two years, provided the final dagger with 25 seconds left.
And it left the Wings, searching for answers that simply aren't there at the moment. They've taken just two points out of a possible 10 in the last nine days, blowing three 2-0 leads in the skid, and, as Babcock said flatly, "Any way you look at it, that's a slippery slope."
They've fallen, no question. And for the Red Wings, in case you hadn't noticed, getting up is no guarantee anymore.