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 don’t 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 Wednesday’s display didn’t do much to dispute that notion.

Still, on a night when another sellout crowd of 20,066 officially welcomed the team’s 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, didn’t it? Maybe a bit too routine for coach Mike Babcock’s liking. (“I would’ve liked to see us a little more intense,” he said.) Especially with sterner tests looming, including Saturday’s 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 aren’t playing catch-up from the start.

“You’re 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. You’re starting to count everything.”

The Wings probably weren’t counting on Samuelsson scoring right off the bat, but they’ll 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 Wednesday’s first goal, set up by Cory Emmerton, a player this team waived and then recalled earlier in the week — “I’d be lying if I told you there wasn’t 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 don’t have any doubts I can still play a pretty good game,” Samuelsson shrugged. “But it’s easy to stand in here and talk. Hopefully I’ll 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 star’s turn, dangling and dazzling with an unassisted backhander in the slot. From there, there wasn’t much doubt, though the scoreboard didn’t 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 they’d better stay healthy. The power play will be markedly improved with Alfredsson’s right-hand shot firing bullets. Give him and Weiss a few weeks to get comfortable with Johan Franzen and you’ve 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 won’t necessarily be easy — except for the travel, of course — but this team, in it’s old tried-and-true way, certainly seems ready for a new challenge.

“I think that’s how you start every year: You never know how good you are,” said Babcock, beginning his ninth season behind the Wings’ bench — matching Scotty Bowman’s tenure in Detroit. “The speculation is we’re a better team than last year. And yet last year’s team turned out to be a pretty good team. So those things just don’t happen by accident. You’ve got to get your structure back, you’ve 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
twitter.com/JohnNiyo

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
See Also