Red Wings on upswing, but expect stiff test on road trip

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
The Red Wings and Flames already have met once this month, with Calgary earning a 5-3 victory at Little Caesars Arena.

Detroit —  It’ll be a challenge for the Red Wings, in more ways than one.

They headed out after Thursday’s practice on the long plane ride to western Canada, for a three-game road trip which is never easy for a variety of reasons.

And it will not be this time around, either.

It’s usually a lengthy trip, and it is this season, concluding with a game Tuesday in Edmonton.

The opponents — Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton — are always competitive, and surely are this season. Calgary, in particular, is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, leading the Western Conference with 65 points entering Thursday's games.

Plus, this season there’s the mental challenge of concentrating on hockey. That might easier said than done.

Once this road trip is over, there’s an All-Star break — except for goaltender Jimmy Howard, who is headed to the game — and connected to that is the bye portion of the schedule for the Wings.

So, after the Edmonton game, the Wings aren’t going to be together for a regularly scheduled practice until Jan. 31.

And, likely for many Wings, there will be warm Caribbean islands in between.

But, until then, it’s just hockey, and the chance to build upon the two-game win streak which has the Wings thinking of a move up in the standings.

“It’s huge; it would be huge to get three wins to lead into the bye week,” Howard said of the upcoming trip. “It’s a chance to feel real good about ourselves going into the break. It wasn’t good there for a stretch (the Wings were 1-7-3 in mid-December). We just didn’t get the results, and then the last few games we’ve played well and we did get results.

“We just have to continuing building on it.”

Another factor, in terms of the western Canada road trip, is it’s usually in the cold-weather, middle-of-the-season months of December, January or February, when the grind of the schedule is at its worst.

That’s for sure, in this case.

For the younger players on the Wings’ roster, it’ll be an opportunity to keep plowing ahead, hoping to build on the steps they took the last two games.

“The part that’s a learned thing is working through the months of January and February, when the schedule gets long and you don’t see tons of light at the end of the tunnel,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “It’s easy on opening night. It’s harder to be at your best through these parts of the year.

“Yet the guys that are at their best every night are the ones that are the elite players. The teams that are at their best every night are the ones that are elite teams.”

Blashill, as is normally the case, wasn’t thinking too far ahead after Thursday’s practice about the entirety of the road trip.

His focus was mainly on the practice, and focusing on a Calgary team that is 7-1-2 in its last 10 games, and defeated the Wings at Little Caesars Arena earlier this month.

“We’ll keep the same focus we’ve had and that is, make sure we got better today (in practice),” Blashill said. “I wasn’t sure in Monday’s practice we got better. We had to make sure we got better today, and focus on Calgary, and we’ll move on from there.

“Every game is critical. Certainly the game against Calgary is critical. We’ve had the opportunity to win two games in a row, let’s go and see if we can go and find a way to win a third one.

“Then, you start some confidence.”

The last two victories — the Wings’ first back-to-back wins since Nov. 28-Dec. 1 — have showed the Wings’ playing confidently and aggressively in the third period, as well as playing more in the offensive zone and less in the defensive zone.

In a season that took a wrong way turn in December, it’s been a needed positive trend.

“There’s too many games we’ve lost by one, and we’re like, ‘We played pretty good,'" forward Thomas Vanek said. “Playing pretty good only gets you this far. We need results.

“Hopefully, we can keep going here and get some more points on the road.”

Ice chips

Blashill said forward Michael Rasmussen (hamstring) will make the trip, but the team isn't sure about when Rasmussen will return. Rasmussen has missed the last five games and is considered day-to-day.

... Forward Jacob de la Rose didn't practice Thursday, but Blashill expects him to play against Calgary.

Red Wings at Flames

Faceoff: 9 p.m. Friday, Scotiabank Saddledome, Calgary, Alberta

TV/radio: Fox Sports Detroit-Plus/97.1 FM

Outlook: Calgary (30-13-5, 65 points) leads the Western Conference and has been particularly good at home (15-4-5). …The Flames defeated the Wings on Jan. 2 at Little Caesars Arena, 5-3. … LW Johnny Gaudreau (28 goals, 71 points) is a Hart Trophy (league MVP) candidate.

Twitter: @tkulfan