October 3, 2013 at 9:39 am

John Niyo

After humdrum opener, Wings better hope their best is yet to come

Detroit This was supposed to be a night about new faces and new places.

But this being the Red Wings, everything new was old again Wednesday night at Joe Louis Arena, where a 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres in the season opener was a reminder that some things simply dont change.

A reminder, too, that their rough-and-tumble new neighborhood has a few patsies of its own. The rebuilding Sabres were deemed also-rans even before they got out of the gate this season This is not exactly a test of mettle for the Red Wings, NBC analyst Mike Milbury grumbled during the first intermission and Wednesdays display didnt do much to dispute that notion.

Still, on a night when another sellout crowd of 20,066 officially welcomed the teams Eastern Conference resettlement, and on a night they cheered the debuts of Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss the Wings big offseason free-agent signings it was less about what they brought and more about what they joined.

First-period goals by Pavel Datsyuk and Mikael Samuelsson provided all the scoring that was needed. Jimmy Howard stopped every shot he faced until he decided to end his own shutout bid with an inadvertent assist in the third period. And same as it ever was, I suppose the referees did their best to even things up, handing Buffalo seven power plays (including two 5-on-3s) in the first two periods and even waving off a good goal by Daniel Cleary for interference.

Tougher competition

This was not a rout, but it did seem routine, didnt it? Maybe a bit too routine for coach Mike Babcocks liking. (I wouldve liked to see us a little more intense, he said.) Especially with sterner tests looming, including Saturdays trip to Boston to face the defending East champs.

Yet as openers go, this was probably the kind of affirmation the Wings needed. The new guys had a chance to get settled, the penalty-killing units got a workout, and unlike a year ago in that shotgun start after the lockout you remember the 6-0 shellacking at St. Louis, right? at least the Wings arent playing catch-up from the start.

Youre putting points up on the board now, said Weiss, the 12-year NHL veteran who admitted to feeling anxious and nervous prior to his first regular-season game wearing the winged wheel. This is the real deal now. Youre starting to count everything.

The Wings probably werent counting on Samuelsson scoring right off the bat, but theyll certainly take it after getting nothing from him in an injury-plagued return to Detroit a year ago.

Babcock admitted it was his mistake that left the Wings fourth line on the ice against the Sabres top line midway through the first period. But no matter: Hockey has a funny way of rewarding mistakes.

And so it was with Wednesdays first goal, set up by Cory Emmerton, a player this team waived and then recalled earlier in the week Id be lying if I told you there wasnt a little extra fire there, he said and scored by the 36-year-old Samuelsson, a player the Wings wanted to amnesty this summer and most fans understandably want to see replaced with Tomas Tatar or Gustav Nyquist.

If you ask me, I dont have any doubts I can still play a pretty good game, Samuelsson shrugged. But its easy to stand in here and talk. Hopefully Ill show it on the ice.

Datsyuk's turn on stage

Datsyuk shows it every night, of course. And a half-minute after Samuelsson scored, it was the newly-extended stars turn, dangling and dazzling with an unassisted backhander in the slot. From there, there wasnt much doubt, though the scoreboard didnt seem to agree.

Which is about all you can ask for at this point. Every team has question marks in this league. But the Wings figure to have more answers than they did a year ago.

The young defensemen can only get better, though theyd better stay healthy. The power play will be markedly improved with Alfredssons right-hand shot firing bullets. Give him and Weiss a few weeks to get comfortable with Johan Franzen and youve got the 1-2 punch that was missing last season, too. As Babcock said, If you have 1A and 1B instead of 1 and 2 it makes it way easier for you to run your bench.

This transition to the East wont necessarily be easy except for the travel, of course but this team, in its old tried-and-true way, certainly seems ready for a new challenge.

I think thats how you start every year: You never know how good you are, said Babcock, beginning his ninth season behind the Wings bench matching Scotty Bowmans tenure in Detroit. The speculation is were a better team than last year. And yet last years team turned out to be a pretty good team. So those things just dont happen by accident. Youve got to get your structure back, youve got to get your work ethic back, and good things gotta happen.

But just as better teams are coming for the Wings, better things should be, too.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Sabres defenseman Mike Weber and Wings forward Daniel Cleary (71) collide along the boards in the first period Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News
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