The Red Wings fell back into some of their old habits against the Calgary Flames on Thursday, making mistakes, turning the puck over too often, and losing the fourth game of their longest-of-the-season road trip, 6-3.
Splitting the four-game trip is less than impressive. But it is more than might have been expected from the team that left town nine days ago.
The Wings still search for consistency. But, for reasons that were obvious on the road, they are capable of better performance than last season.
If they can sustain back at home some of the things they did well on the road, they can take advantage of a potentially important part of their season.
After grinding through 12 of the first 17 games of the season on the road, the Red Wings play 13 of the next 15 in their new home, Little Caesars Arena, through Dec. 15.
By then, they should have a clear idea of whether the playoffs are, in fact, a possibility this season.
The simple road game they used to defeat the Oilers and Canucks, and to play well before falling to the stifling defense of the Senators, suddenly eluded them about 10 minutes through the first period in Calgary.
If they can emphasize that sort of play at home, getting pucks deep behind the opponents’ defensemen with a hard forecheck in the offensive zone and mostly “north-south” skating, rather than some of the “east-west” play that is too often diversion rather than skill, the Red Wings will be much more difficult to defeat.
The games in Ottawa, Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary, coming not long after the Wings’ 0-5-1 stretch, established some things the Wings do differently than last year.
There is less quit in them.
Despite falling behind 3-0, the Wings never let the Flames too far out of their sight, and with all four lines providing considerable intent they poured 32 shots on the Flames in the last two periods.
Unlike long stretches of last season, they are getting offense from lines on which Henrik Zetterberg does not play.
Anthony Mantha’s second period provided considerable evidence of the new sources of offense. Mantha’s brilliant playmaking produced scintillating passes that were the key assists on the Red Wings’ first two goals, before the young, powerful forward scored the third himself.
That is eight goals through 17 games for Mantha, whose impact defensively and without the puck is growing.
Andreas Athanasiou played 15:05 and looked not unlike Pavel Datsyuk, taking the puck right off the sticks of Flames players five times for five takeaways in the game.
Jeff Blashill also had a good road trip.
Blashill’s line of Frans Nielsen, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader looked good throughout.
Nielsen’s goal, assist and the only plus-2 rating in the lineup against Calgary provided more evidence that with six goals through 17 games the veteran acquired two seasons ago from the Islanders is capable of more production.
Blashill should be credited for making moves with personnel that added up to both wins.
By neutralizing the Oilers and Canucks’ big scorers with Nielsen’s line, or Dylan Larkin stepping up with some considerable defense, Blashill determined to keep opponents from scoring. Leaving Detroit with the team seemingly on the ropes, rather than uniting Larkin, Mantha and Athanasiou to see what sort of offensive punch they could provide, the head coach determined to play solid defense against the opponents’ best offense.
“Blashill’s Blender,” the shuffling of lines that sometimes leaves us wondering how anyone, especially young players, can build confidence and attain consistency, provided a considerable advantage in Canada.
Similar ministrations will be required from the coach, and similar performances by the players will be necessary on the long homestretch if the Wings are to emerge from the Maple Leafs game Dec. 15, the last of the 13-out-of-15 at home, looking more like a playoff team than a club essentially facing elimination.
Without some old bugaboos showing up ugly again, including turnovers leading directly to two of the Flames’ goals before failure to clear the zone led to two more, the Red Wings might well have won a third game on the trip. And it was a trip that, at the start, seemed to threaten their entire season after a dreadful 0-5-1 stretch through the last two weeks of October.
The worst mistake they could make now is to come home and try to impress us.
They should stick to their simple, “road game” approach: get the puck, get it in deep, create some scoring chances, stay on top of their defensemen, take care of the puck.
As soon as they strayed against the Flames, they started chasing the game and playing from behind.
But unlike last season when, too often, the negatives would have snowballed, the Wings kept working.
There were points through the second and third periods when it seemed not to matter which of the four lines was deployed. Everyone managed to press the initiative.
Every line produced some offense.
There are only two more wins now, after four games and nine days traveling across Canada.
But there is more hope for this season than when the Red Wings left town.