Wings confound with third-period lapses

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Confused? Why are some things so bad even when the Red Wings are going so good?

How can they get points in 13 straight games, which is likely to be one of the longest streaks in the NHL this season, while relinquishing third-period leads in eight?

The Wings ended their consecutive series of games with points earned Monday with their ninth lead lost in a third period in 14 games. It was the 11th time this season they have surrendered a lead in the third.

Beyond terminating their streak, it seemed all the more disastrous because only 4 minutes, 14 seconds from securing two points and a win, the Sabres scored twice in 1:01 to tie and take the lead.

The Red Wings woke up Tuesday, their day off, still in second place in the Atlantic Division. But they were one point ahead of the Senators and two in front of the Bruins instead of leads of two and four points, respectively, over their closest rivals for playoff position.

They are making things awfully tough on themselves. But facts of the matter are: The Wings have a roster that is still developing, and failing to close out games is sometimes a characteristic of an NHL team still establishing its identity.

The fact it is happening on an almost astonishing, serial basis only emphasizes the point.

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Some perspective from a veteran observer and participant, who arrived only recently on the roster, is both appropriate and, in this case, sage.

“Anything can happen, but two goals in the last five minutes is not how we want to do things,” said Brad Richards, a 15-year veteran and winner of Stanley Cups with the Lightning and Blackhawks.

“Some nights it’s not a systematic breakdown. But for whatever reasons, it seems to be snowballing on us in the third period.”

Of the instincts, fortitude and skill to close out opponents when skating with a lead in third periods, Richards said, “I think you develop that. It’s still a young team and that’s something we work on, and sometimes these things have to happen to realize you have to bear down in all those situations.”

It is why coach Jeff Blashill talks about games against the top teams in the Eastern Conference as important indicators of what the team is becoming. Despite the presence of veterans, the Red Wings are still in the process of developing.

Even some guys who are not young on the calendar are still gaining the NHL experience, especially as players capable of assuming increased responsibility at crucial junctures.

And when the veterans contribute to the difficulty, it intensifies the problem.

Regardless, keeping a foot firmly on the neck of a prone opponent late in contests is causing the Wings so much difficulty it threatens an otherwise successful season, as they approach a critical juncture.

From Dec. 23-Feb. 5, they play 13 of 17 on the road.

The Red Wings were five points out of first in the Atlantic Division and five points out of the playoffs Tuesday morning.

In this case, the standings are a perfect assessment of them: Not the best and obviously not out of it, but clearly requiring improvement.

Tidy-up time

A goal to extend the lead in the third period would have helped Monday. It did not come.

But the Red Wings did improve offensively during their point streak.

Right now, their defensive play and puck possession could use a tune-up.

As their offense got better, their defense has slipped just enough to start causing some trouble. And turning the puck over too often — a problem reappearing after having been rectified earlier this season — did not help.

Before the game, Blashill talked about both as critical areas for improvement. But continuing problems with them proved decisive in the third period.

Coverage issues helped the Sabres score twice, and they also were assisted when the Wings tried and failed to clear the zone immediately before the winning goal.

After the game, captain Henrik Zetterberg owned up to losing his man after a faceoff, which led to the tying goal.

“We lose a faceoff there, and then it was a bit of a scramble and it ends up in our net,” Blashill said.

Then, after the failure to clear the zone, the puck eventually ends up on the stick of a wide-open Johan Larsson in the slot for the winner.

“A sort-out issue,” Blashill said of players failing to decipher which opponent or area to attend.

“One thing I thought we did all night was slot protection. We should have had a guy there.”

The problem, as expressed in one of those hockey chestnuts, is in the details of their structure.

The little stuff is important. The Red Wings hope to clean them up in the three games at home, before the road forces the task upon them with greater weight.

“We’ve been playing a little bit sloppier lately,” Zetterberg said. “Maybe this was a wake-up call for getting back to playing the right way and for 60 minutes.”

Page turners

A couple locally authored books on the Red Wings are available in time for Christmas.

Bob Duff, a veteran hockey writer of The Windsor Star, ranks players current and past in “50 Greatest Red Wings,” amid photographs both interesting and historic, published by Biblioasis.

USA Today’s Kevin Allen and broadcaster Art Regner produced “Red Wing Nation: Detroit’s Greatest Players Talk About Red Wings Hockey,” for Triumph Books.

... Fans might be wise to hang on to any game programs they picked up Monday. In terms of memorabilia and value over time, it was the first to bear a photograph of impressive rookie Dylan Larkin on the cover.

Detroit Red Wings goalie Petr Mrazek (34) stops a shot by Buffalo Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly (90) in the third period.