Detroit – Every game is dangerous now, every point is precious. The Red Wings know it, and this is the time to show it.
They showed just enough Thursday night, edging the Canadiens 4-3, which counts as an offensive outburst for the Wings these days. They needed it all to survive a near-disastrous third period, when their 4-0 lead evaporated. They scored a pretty goal and a few good-and-greasy ones, including the first of Anthony Mantha’s NHL career. I don’t know if the Wings showed urgency or relief, but they did what was necessary, just barely.
The playoff run starts now, with eight games remaining, and the good news is, the Wings have been here before. The troubling news is, the Wings have been here before. The historic playoff streak again is in jeopardy, which doesn’t make it much different than last year, or the year before, or the year before. When a team goes through this tumult every spring, you might wonder if it’s worth it, or how much longer it can continue.
I’m not wavering on this – it’s still absolutely worth it, to extend the streak to 25 years, no matter how difficult it is. If that means enduring another couple weeks of pressure, without a great chance to win the Stanley Cup, so what? The alternative is failure with no long-term gain. Missing the playoffs and commencing a full rebuild — what, by winning the draft lottery? — is a shaky proposition.
With the victory over Montreal, Detroit remained in a virtual tie for the final playoff spot with Philadelphia, a point behind Boston. There’s only one way to relieve the pressure and that’s to apply the pressure, to swarm the net, to skate as if you’re chasing something instead of being chased.
Riley Sheahan, who scored twice against the Canadiens, happens to be the same age as the streak, a tender 24. It’s hard to fathom, and impossible to ignore.
“We try not to think about it,” Sheahan said. “Obviously we’re playing for a pretty prestigious organization, and it’s huge to keep that streak going. … We’ve talked a few times about not wanting to be on the roster that doesn’t make the playoffs.”
This is an incomplete team, without any significant strength, other than the experience and guile of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. The Wings turn the puck over way too often, the goaltending of Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard swings wildly, and the guys who are supposed to score don’t do it consistently.
But they’re persevering dutifully, as they generally do. They need to do more of what they did against the Canadiens, planting bodies in front of the opposing goalie and swatting at opportunities. Rookie head coach Jeff Blashill is searching for remedies without panicking, and this is what he has to see.
It’s the type of grinding effort that produces goals like the first one by Sheahan, who fought off a check in front of goalie Ben Scrivens and backhanded in a rebound for a 1-0 lead. Later, Sheahan scored on a breakaway, a breakout effort for the young center. He has 11 goals but came into the game a minus-12, which isn’t that shocking when you look at the team’s statistics.
The Wings are minus-9 in goal differential, which is why the streak is in peril. Early in the season, rookie Dylan Larkin saved them, and he’s slowed since then. Then Mrazek saved them, and he’s slowed since then.
The next saving effort probably has to come from those expected to score — Justin Abdelkader, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Darren Helm, Sheahan. Considering the Wings have played a league-high 42 one-goal games, they’re not far from being comfortably in the playoffs — and not far from being completely out.
Someone has to rise up, perhaps someone such as Mantha, the 21-year-old winger who made his home debut Thursday night. His goal was a mucky one, as he slapped in a rebound for a 4-0 lead.
Making it difficult
There isn’t much pretty about these Wings. Inexcusable defensive breakdowns resurfaced in the third period and the Canadiens made it tight. Blashill wasn’t happy with the squandering, and it was disturbing against a lesser opponent. Maybe the Wings were confused by the lead — they fell behind in nine of their previous 10 games — or maybe they just wanted chalk up another one-goal game.
“I can’t remember the last time we had a lead going into the third period,” defenseman Brendan Smith said. “The biggest thing is, you can’t take your foot off the gas pedal.”
The Wings hit the gas earlier, and to get goals from Sheahan, Mantha and Luke Glendening in a 40-shot performance was encouraging. A year ago, the power play was second in the league. Now it’s below average, and that’s why Mantha was called up. His goal came on the power play, a sign of relief.
Earlier in the day, Blashill talked about the pressure on young scorers, including Mantha, and how they can handle it.
“If you continue to get scoring chances, you’re going to score, especially guys with ability, and (Mantha) has lots of ability,” Blashill said. “I think the mistake guys make is they panic a little bit and start changing the way they’re playing. Lots of times offensive players then try to cheat for offense when they shouldn’t. And the other thing that happens sometimes is, you grip your stick.”
The Wings are gripping now, trying to hang on and hang in. They let up and the Canadiens put the heat on, and the Wings were sweating again. Consider the heat turned up the rest of the way.