Detroit — The Red Wings’ play this seen has shown a steady — albeit slow — improvement.
There have been a few bad games along the way, of course. But, largely, the Wings are all about self-improvement.
“I think the last several games have probably been some of our best games,” said Jimmy Howard, whose position in net affords a fine view of play — even of the Wings’ offense.
“Just at the end of the night, we didn’t always get the result that we wanted.”
With Pavel Datsyuk, Mike Green and Brad Richards back from injuries and contributing, more things are in sync more often on offense and defense. But the Wings hope to establish themselves as the second or third top team in the Atlantic Division, rather than bouncing in and out of playoff position in the Eastern Conference as they have for much of the first 22 games.
Their loss to the Bruins Wednesday underlined perhaps the last fixable part of the ongoing project that is a team seeking to deep into the 2016 playoffs: They still need to score more.
Playing in the bottom third of the NHL in goals for makes protecting leads and finishing off teams in the third period all the more difficult for the Red Wings.
Coach Jeff Blashill made clear after Friday’s morning skate the lack of scoring is the root of the alarming problem of yielding leads in third periods, as they did against the Bruins Wednesday. They tossed another win out the window, this time in one of their best efforts all season, and almost certainly their best 60 minutes of regulation at possessing the puck.
“We talked about it this morning,” Blashill said. “If you look back, we lost the lead late in St. Louis, we lost the lead late in Ottawa just recently. And, obviously, the other night.
“We talked about: Is there anything you can do different? I think that’s the thing you can look at as a coach. Not for the blame game, but for the correction process moving forward.
“I didn’t think we took our foot off the gas, really, in St. Louis. I didn’t think we did (against the Bruins). I didn’t think we did against Ottawa, either. The biggest thing for us? I think we’ve got to get that next goal.”
“We’ve got to make those games two-goal games. And if we would have scored on some of our opportunities the other night, I think the game would have been over. So, we’ve got to find a way to have that killer instinct when we do get into those situations.”
With bigger offensive threats back from injury and others performing about as expected, the search for additional scoring can, by process of elimination, fall to the fourth line.
Luke Glendening, Drew Miller and Darren Helm had one goal and six assists entering Friday’s game against the Oilers. Like the line of Datsyuk, Richards and Teemu Pulkkinen, they have not been together so long that chemistry comes easy, but the fourth line also is not as accomplished, offensively.
Does the coach think the fourth line will score?
“I think they can,” Blashill said. “I think they will over time here. You know, you look back at the numbers and all of them, at a different time, have scored. So it’s just a matter of going a little bit more for them.”
In 510 career games before Friday, Miller had 114 points (56 goals and 58 assists). But his major, critical role is as a killer of penalties.
Miller had a near-perfect setup against the Bruins, planted with the puck to the left of the net with that side of it wide open and goalie Jonas Gustavsson desperate to recover. But a goal was not to be.
Luke Glendening has 14 goals and 14 assists in 160 career games. But Glendening’s role is largely defensive, too. He was the only Wings forward with more time on the penalty kill last season than Miller.
Critics of Wings management on social media frequently suggest that players like Andreas Athanasiou and perhaps Tomas Jurco, now in Grand Rapids, should replace Glendening and Miller. But those assertions do not account for the prime role of penalty killers.
Helm is a legitimate threat, having posted points (59 goals, 80 assists) in almost half of his games in an injury-riddled career.
Helm also soaks up considerable time on the penalty kill, and his season got off to a halting start when he absorbed a huge collision during camp.
“I think Helm’s one of those guys who can go up and down your lineup, can play in a lot of different spots, a lot of different roles, Blashill said.
“This is the way we’ve got it set right now. Any line he’s on, he’s going to add an element of speed, an element of energy. I think he’s playing better and better and better.
“Again, you know, obviously missing training camp and the first part of the year, it’s hard to jump right in. But he’s certainly played real well as of late.”