Red Wings know they've 'got to be better'

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Brendan Smith – A knee sprain has put a major dent in Smith’s season, limiting him to 24 games with free agency looming this summer. When Smith has been on the ice, he’s looked better defensively. GRADE: Incomplete

Buffalo – On the eve of Thanksgiving the Red Wings are playing the Sabres (7 p.m, FSD Plus, 97.1FM), who are above them in the standings.

As they stare up from the basement of the Atlantic Division, about to play their 20th of 82 games, the Wings are five points out of the final wild-card spot.

It may only be Nov. 23, but this is the biggest Red Wings game against the Sabres in a long time.

While the team knows the calendar and the math, coach Jeff Blashill set an even tone after the optional morning skate this morning in the KeyBank Center.

He acknowledged the urgency, but said it is also a bit routine.

“I think that’s not anything new, though. We’ve talked about urgency really from day one,” Blashill said.

“We realize every game’s like a playoff game, and certainly this game is and the next game will be and they’ll continue to be all year long.”

But the team has discussed the circumstances and made some determinations, he said.

“There isn’t any doubt” the Red Wings need to meet the challenge, he said.

“We talked yesterday as a group,” Blashill said. “We’ve got to look at ourselves, everybody, and say we’ve got to be better and we’ve got to step up and find ways to win hockey games.”

Blashill said there have been lots of discussions with and among the team, and more than a few close games they have lost.

“We’ve got to find a way to win those games," he said.

The Wings have lost four consecutively and are now 2-8-1 in their past 11, since winning six in a row October 17-27.

The Sabres, meanwhile, are a point ahead of them in the standings and winners of two in a row. On Monday, against the Flames, Buffalo scored four goals; the first time they have had more than three since Oct. 30 and only the second time this season.

During the cold stretch, the Red Wings have been shut out three times, including 1-0 games against the Bruins and Capitals when they had scoring chances.

In a search for offense, Blashill has reset his lines, yet again.

Justin Abdelkader replaces Gustav Nyquist on the top line, with Henrik Zetterberg and Anthony Mantha.

Nyquist moves down to play with Dylan Larkin, at center, and Thomas Vanek, who makes another return to Buffalo, where the 32-year-old starred earlier in his career.

Asked about Mantha’s ability to score in a top-three slot, Blashill said he is not the only player from whom the Wings need more production.

“Well, we need offense from everybody, whether it’s Mantha or other guys in our lineup,” he said. “We need guys to step up and find ways to score.

“I thought Mantha scored a nice goal the other day. We’d love if he could provide a bunch of offense for us," he said.

Jimmy Howard will start in net

Brendan Smith returns to the lineup after he was a healthy scratch for the first time this season, for two games.

Alexey Marchenko (upper body) is out indefinitely.

And Vanek said he thinks he will play better after a less than optimal return to the lineup in the 3-2 loss to the Flames, Sunday.

“Thinking a little bit too much,” Vanek said. “So I’m looking forward to just reacting more and playing the game again.

“I skated lots and the conditioning and stuff, I just felt great.

“I think sometimes it took me too long to make a decision. The game is fast and it doesn’t matter what you do off the ice. I think just by playing games, you’ll get back into it.”

The Wings have a point in the past 16 of 17 games against the Sabres, 15-1-1, and have lost to them only four times in regulation since 1997-98.

But it has been a long time since they were looking up at the Sabres in the standings.