Detroit — After the Red Wings' latest loss, 3-2, to the Flames Sunday, the media strained for different ways to ask the same question: How can the Wings, losers of four in a row and 2-8-1 since Oct. 27, improve?
Jeff Blashill strained for different ways to answer.
Finally, stopping himself after starting a response near the end of his postgame scrum with the media, Blashill spoke directly.
And it sounded like a bit of a warning.
“Well, I don’t think — listen,” he said, “we’d better pick ourselves up. And we’d better come to work tomorrow to get better.
“And we’d better put the work in that it takes to get confidence come Wednesday,” when they play the equally lowly Sabres in Buffalo.
“That’s the bottom line.
“We’d better pick ourselves up in a hurry and focus on coming in to win a hockey game on Wednesday.”
The way they are playing — lacking the ability to finish and then running around in their own zone far too much — it will not be easy.
And they have had some difficulty scoring since the beginning of last season.
With the Flames in town having played an ineffective 10 games (3-7), and with one of their stars Johnny Gaudreau out, the Red Wings hoped to get back on the winning track.
But bobbling some early chances, before their team defense and puck possession began to lag, yet again, they let Calgary build a 2-1 lead early in the third period.
Anthony Mantha scored on a sniping, goal scorer’s shot for his first of the season, at 7:59 of the third to tie it. But the overly generous Wings gave it right back.
With Alexey Marchenko injured, the Red Wings played with five defenders and it helped erase the deficit.
With laggardly help from forwards back-checking, Niklas Kronwall and Ryan Sproul allowed the Flames down low on a nifty give-and-go by Mikael Backlund and their leading scorer Michael Frolik, and Jimmy Howard had little chance on the shot, at 12:14.
The Red Wings generated some pressure in the last 7:46 but failed to score.
“We are paying for our mistakes,” said Tomas Tatar, who scored his third goal of the season and second in 14 games at 8:06 of the first period to open the scoring.
“They weren’t creating more than us. But it’s just from our stuff, what we are doing wrong, they all of a sudden score a goal.
“We have to do better,” Tatar added.“We have to watch the videos, stick together and find a way.”
Bad on faceoffs most of the night, the Wings were finally able to get their winning percentage above 40 percent in the third period, to finish at 43 percent.
They had 10 giveaways, including five in the first period that contributed to shutting down efforts to assert themselves early.
They had 23 shots on goal.
Thomas Vanek looked good in his first game back from a strained hip muscle, getting to areas down low that the Red Wings otherwise have some trouble reaching and creating a few scoring chances. But it was nowhere near enough.
“We gave them good chances, from the start,” Zetterberg said. “A few turnovers in our own end and all of a sudden we end up spending a minute, a minute-and-a-half in our end, instead of making the simple play and we move the play out to the neutral zone.
“That’s the way they play. They play simple, so you’ve got to play simple against them.”
Asked what can turn around a longer cold streak than he has been used to in his 14 seasons with the Wings, Zetterberg said they are looking for one win, from which they must build.
“We need one win here,” he said. “We’ve just got to grind out a win.
”The things is, I’ve said this before, when we’re playing the way we’re supposed to, we’re playing well. We’re creating chances. We have a lot of speed.
“But when we’re not, we’re getting caught in our own end,”
"And once teams get in our own end, it seems like we spend forever in there.”
Sproul played a third consecutive game on defense while Brendan Smith sat for a second consecutive time after starting 17 straight.
Blashill said Marchenko is likely out “for a while,” and would have more to say about the upper body injury on Monday. Smith might replace Marchenko.
Meanwhile, Xavier Ouellet — like Sproul, a second round pick in 2011 — has played twice in the past 15 games.
Regardless, after 19 games of the season, the Red Wings have 17 out of a possible 38 points.
Mantha’s goal was one of the bright spots, Sunday.
Set up neatly by Gustav Nyquist as they both broke in, Mantha had some trouble with the puck and put it over the top of the net.
But Zetterberg arrived behind the net, collected the puck and put a perfect bank pass of the end boards to Mantha, who had continued skating to the other side of the goal.
With a laser of a wrist shot, Mantha beat the goalie Chad Johnson high on the short side.
Zetterberg and Nyquist now both have nine assists on the season.
After the Wings' moribund power play failed to capitalize on an early penalty at 2:40 of the first period, Tatar scored at 8:05.
Then the Flames got a goal at 3:40 of the second period from Garnet Hathaway, after the Red Wings had let Calgary dominate the ice and play for long stretches in the Wings zone from the beginning of the period.
It was Hathaway’s first NHL goal.
The Flames got a second goal, for a 2-1 lead, from the veteran Matt Stajan at 2:31 of the third period.
Defenseman Dougie Hamilton, whose reduced playing time in recent games had led to speculation the Flames were interested in trading him, assisted on all three Calgary goals.
The Wings finished one point ahead of the Sabres, who are in last place in the Atlantic Division but have a game in hand.
They remained four points behind the Devils for the final playoff spot. But New Jersey has two games in hand and two more wins in regulation and overtime, the first tie-breaker.
The Sabres and Devils are the Red Wings next two opponents, on the road, as Wings reach the quarter pole of a season, at a time when many general managers and others say, the playoff picture firms up for teams who ultimately will not compete for spots.
The Red Wings are plainly tempting that fate.
Perhaps they can turn it on the road. But they are into the losing, deep.