December 20, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Stars brighten outlook in delivering much-needed win for Wings

Detroit — Punxsutawney Pavel ventured outside his windowless den the other day, didn’t see his shadow and, with the locals grumbling after six straight losses, offered a prediction of his own.

“No sun in Detroit,” Pavel Datsyuk said after the Red Wings’ outdoor practice at Comerica Park on Wednesday. “We start winning, it might be sunny.”

Right now, they’ll settle for partly cloudy with a chance of the playoffs. But Thursday night’s 3-2 overtime win over Calgary at Joe Louis Arena certainly brightened the overnight forecast, if not the extended one here in Detroit.

Daniel Alfredsson’s second goal of the night won it barely a minute into extra time, and both he and Pavel Datsyuk — two of the few healthy stars in Mike Babcock’s lineup — led the way with three-point efforts as the Red Wings ended a six-game winless streak.

Calgary, making its fourth stop on a five-game road trip, came in with the fourth-worst record in the NHL. So Thursday’s result was hardly a season-defining moment.

But the Wings had lost five in a row at home — and eight of their last 10 here — the most recent to Anaheim in embarrassing fashion on Tuesday. They’d won just five of 20 games on home ice all season — the Wings’ worst start at home since 1985-86, which also happened to be the worst season in franchise history.

And with a lineup suffocated by injuries — eight regulars were out again Thursday night —it had become, as Datsyuk put it, “a tough time to breathe.”

No surprise, then, that it was the old lungs breathing some life into the place against the Flames.

Alfredsson responds

Alfredsson, the 41-year-old who skipped the outdoor practice Wednesday to rest, scored the first and last goals of the night and had a third waved off in between. Datsyuk, finally looking more like himself after missing time following a concussion, assisted on all three goals and was dominant at times. And Niklas Kronwall, the team leader on the back end, added a pair of assists to go with a team-high three hits and three blocked shots.

Asked what message they’d sent with that effort, Alfredsson said, “We just tell the group here, ‘We leave everything on the table.’ ”

It was Datsyuk who left the Flames shorthanded in overtime. He split a pair of defenders and drew a hooking penalty on T.J. Brodie with 41 seconds left in regulation. Then he set up Alfredsson for the power-play winner — a rocket one-timer from the slot at 1:03 of extra time.

“Two great players who’ve been playing well for us all year,” said Joakim Andersson, who’d given the Wings a 2-1 lead midway through the second period. “Alfie’s come in here and he’s being a leader. He was the captain in Ottawa for so long. You can see why.”

Even Thursday you could see why Babcock called his team “fragile” after Tuesday’s loss to Anaheim, and why he got little argument from his players. The veterans on this team saw the same thing: Waning confidence and emotional letdowns that border on panic attacks, at times.

Thursday night, the Wings coughed up an early lead just as they’d done against Anaheim, then did it again in the second period by taking three penalties in a 2-minute span.

“But instead of folding,” Babcock said, “we kept playing.”

And while you can blame some of the erratic effort on the youth they’re skating right now -— Babcock dressed a handful of players Thursday who started the season in Grand Rapids — that doesn’t explain away the losses that were piling up even before the injuries did.

Nor does it acknowledge that some of those youngsters probably should’ve started the season in Detroit, in place of vets like Mikael Samuelsson, who was a $3 million healthy scratch Thursday — for the 16th time this season.

Help is coming

Much like the Pistons, though, the Wings are lucky to be in the East, where despite their record (16-12-9) they’re still fourth in their division and sitting in the top wild-card spot for the playoffs as they near the midseason mark.

Still, with a difficult schedule looming next month — and the continuing media circus with the Winter Classic still unfolding — there was an understandable sense of urgency in the Wings’ dressing room prior to this one.

Asked beforehand if this was a must-win game, the Wings’ Tomas Tatar replied, “You don’t want to put a label there, but obviously the earlier it will come, everybody will feel better, right?”

Sure, and eventually they’ll feel better physically, right? General manager Ken Holland said Wednesday he expects captain Henrik Zetterberg (herniated disc) to return Dec. 28 at Florida, barring any setbacks. Defenseman Danny DeKeyser, whose absence is felt as much as anyone right now, is hoping to return this weekend after missing more than a month with a separated shoulder. Goalie Jimmy Howard (MCL sprain) skated briefly Thursday morning and may be back in time for the Winter Classic.

So could Justin Abdelkader (concussion), Darren Helm (shoulder), Johan Franzen (concussion) and Gustav Nyquist (groing), though I generally put as much faith in the Wings’ injury timetables as I do a groundhog’s weather forecasts.

“But it doesn’t matter who’s in the lineup,” Kronwall reiterated after Thursday’s win. “We should be able to find a way to win.”

That they finally did Thursday night only reinforced that notion, while reminding the younger players what it takes.

“We’re not playing our best and I don’t think we did tonight, either, but we had the effort,” Alfredsson said. “We’ve got to build from that.”

They’d better, because the long winter hasn’t even begun yet.

T.J. Brodie of the Flames skates past the celebrating Red Wings on Thursday night. / David Guralnick / Detroit News
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