Detroit – Thomas Vanek is back, Jimmy Howard is the starting goalie and Brendan Smith will sit for another game, as the Red Wings, with losses in three consecutive games and 2-7-1 in the last 10, seek to get their season headed back in the right direction Sunday night against the struggling Flames (7-11-1).
Vanek asserted he is no savior, and Jeff Blashill said the Wings’ (8-9-1) situation neither results from a single player missing or his return.
“He’s a talented player,” Blashill said. “But we’ve got other talented players on our team that can step as well and make big plays in critical moments.
“If you think of the last two games, they both came down to late goals at the end of games where the other team made the play.
“We need to make those plays.
“And we’ve got guys throughout our lineup that can do it. We need to do it.”
Vanek was plainly happy to return after a strained hip muscle interrupted what was a nice start for the 32-year-old veteran who has played for the Sabres, Islanders, Canadiens and Wild.
In 824 career games, Vanek has 320 goals and 337 assists for 657 points.
He scored two goals opening night and compiled four goals and four assists in the first eight games before sitting out 11, since Oct. 25.
“It’s never fun to be injured. It’s never fun to watch, Vanek said. “Obviously, it’s especially harder when the team is losing to watch. I think you’re not playing in games and the team is going good, it’s a lot easier.
“So I’m looking forward to be back, and hopefully start contributing again.”
Like Blashill and many of the players, Vanek thinks the team is playing well lately, but not well enough to get wins.
“Right now, I think what we have to do is create a little more, score some dirty goals and some guys will feel better about themselves and off we go, hopefully,” he said.
Vanek produced what the Wings need, going to the so-called dirty areas of the ice, fore-checking, forcing some turnovers and getting some opportunistic goals and assists.
In two one-goal loses to top teams in the Eastern Conference, the Lightning and Capitals, the Wings suffered for a lack of chances down low, near the goal, and for not finishing what spare chances they did produce.
But in both games they played well enough otherwise to win.
They have three other one-goal losses in the last 10 games.
“Again, I’m not here to save anything,” Vanek said, when the free-agent acquisition from last summer was asked if he can make a quick difference.
“Like I said when I first got here, I feel like I can still play in this league and make my linemates better. That’s what good players can do and I still feel like I’m a good player.
“So, I’m not here to go out and score three goals and try to do something heroic.”
Vanek will play with Frans Nielsen and Dylan Larkin.
“Hopefully we can find some chemistry early,” Vanek said.
Howard said Vanek’s return might take some pressure off other forwards, several of whom are struggling to score, and bolster a lagging power play.
“Whether he’s net-front of he’s passing off, he can get stick on pucks and he can go with little deflections or re-directs,” Howard said. “And, you know, he’s got a good shot to boot.”
In the recent 10-game stretch, the Red Wings have yielded three goals per game and scored 1.7.
For the season, at 2.33 goals per game, they are 24th in the league. Last season, at 2.55 goals per game, they finished 23rd.
They are outshot an average of 31.8 to 28.1 per game.
Specialty teams are not helping their cause. The Wings are 16th in the NHL on the power play (16.4 percent) and 27th killing penalties (77.8 percent).
Blashill announced no roster moves to make room for Vanek in the lineup. Tyler Bertuzzi and Anthony Mantha remain with the team.