Detroit — The backdrop of dueling Red Wings and Penguins logos on the Little Caesars Arena was flush with tie-dye. A Grateful Dead cover band, “Dead Again,” played in the concourse before the game. Special edition jerseys with skulls wearing hockey helmets with a lightning bolt on the forehead graced every section in the arena.
But no, fans in attendance were not, in fact, tripping — at least not at the sight of the Wings losing their 11th game in as many tries on Saturday night, the realities of which are far too tangible and well-documented to be part of some psychedelic fit.
There was finally some fight from the Wings, though. Third-period goals from Filip Hronek and Dylan Larkin drew Detroit within a goal of tying things up before the Penguins buried an empty-netter with seconds remaining to beat the Wings, 5-3.
"We didn't really get going until too late," said Larkin, who also added an assist in the second period. "Maybe it's confidence-building for our team offense, and for myself, but we need to get it going sooner."
The empty-net goal was scored on a Penguins power play after Detroit ended its own comeback hopes with a too-many-men penalty at 18:14.
"I should have waited until we had the puck in their zone with full possession," Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill said. "We've just got to be a little bit cleaner on that."
Detroit (7-21-3) entered Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh as losers of 10 in a row, the first two losses coming in overtime while the latter eight were dealt in regulation. The Penguins (17-9-4) were without captain and two-time Conn Smythe winner Sidney Crosby; the Pittsburgh center was placed on injured reserve in November after deciding to undergo hernia surgery.
The Penguins took a lead at 5:37 in the first, thanks to a centering pass from Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang. Penguins forward Jake Guentzel crashed the crease of Wings goaltender Jonathan Bernier, using his stick to push the leg pad of Wings goaltender Jonathan Bernier and knocking a loose puck into the net.
Pittsburgh added to its lead with 2:36 left in the opening period. Evgeni Malkin left a drop pass for cycling defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, whose weak wrister from the blue line snuck through a sea of bodies and past Bernier to make it 2-0.
Despite the quick 2-0 lead created by Pittsburgh, Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill said that he didn't feel like his team was "on our heels."
"The Malkin line, when they're out there, they score the two goals, one of those is an icing where we don't have the matchup," Blashill said. "I thought we were solid, but in the end we were down 2-0. We weren't good enough."
The goal was Ruhwedel's first of the season; a second assist was later attributed to Guentzel, his second point of the period.
Penguins forward Alex Galchenyuk put the Red Wings power-play unit, ranked 27th entering Saturday, on the ice with a tripping penalty at 5:14 in the second.
Detroit forward Dylan Larkin let go a shot that bounced off Tyler Bertuzzi and right to Robby Fabbri for a rebound goal on the man-advantage that cut Detroit’s deficit to 2-1, Fabbri’s seventh goal of the season.
While the Wings' first tally would be considered a "dirty goal" in most hockey circles, it was the only one that they'd score like it, something defenseman Alex Biega believes is holding the team back from coming out on top.
"Unfortunately, pucks just aren't going in for us right now," Biega said. "We have to realize that we're a team that, if we're going to win games, we're going to win games 3-2, and 2-1, and find ways to score dirty goals around the net."
The Wings received a noticeable boost in energy after Fabbri’s power-play goal. Bernier made a great play to get across the crease and stop a dribbling puck from going in just moments later. That save resulted in a 2-on-1 for the Wings; Pittsburgh defenseman Jack Johnson made a great play to force a pass to rookie forward Filip Zadina and then get across to block the one-timer.
The Wings and Penguins each had 28 shots on net, but the Penguins blocked 14 shots to only five for Detroit.
This mojo did not stay on the home bench for long.
Ruhwedel soon foiled a tired Wings clearing attempt near the left-side boards after an icing, resulting in a bouncing puck that stayed in the zone and found Guentzel. He immediately whipped the puck to Malkin for his eighth goal of the season to put Pittsburgh up 3-1 at 10:42 in the second.
"We made kind of a forced play for the icing there, so that sets up, not the matchups that we wanted, and also Malkin rolls over," Blashill said. ""It wasn't a big deal (at the time), but it is a big deal in the end."
Malkin's goal was just the latest instance of Detroit giving up a goal immediately after picking up some momentum.
"You've just got to take what's given," Blashill said. "You don't have to force anything, and I think that's a big part of it. You get 2-1, so you have some momentum, just keep playing."
The Penguins appeared to have crushed any imagination that Detroit had of a third-period comeback, extending its lead to 4-1 with a goal from Dominik Kahun, his 15th point in 17 games, just 1:38 into the final period. John Marino and Marcus Pettersson each contributed an assist on the goal.
Backup goaltender Eric Comrie, 24, made his first appearance with the big-league club this season and sixth of his career on Saturday night, taking over for Bernier after the Penguins' fourth goal.
Hronek got the Wings back within a pair with time winding down in the third, burying a beautiful cross-crease pass from Darren Helm at 12:59.
Larkin said his team's third-period burst was "ignited" by the play of forwards Helm, Frans Nielsen and Luke Glendening on that shift.
"They showed us right there by example that it's just hard work, playing simple, playing the right way, and doing it with 100-percent effort," Larkin said.
"I thought from that moment on we had life, and the building had life, so good for those guys to get us going like that. Something we needed, badly."
Blashill offered some kind words on his young defenseman Hronek, who again led the team in ice time with 24:34 played.
"He's done a really good job. I wish, in some ways, we didn't have so many injuries and he didn't have to play as much," Blashill said.
What has impressed Blashill most about Hronek, a second-round pick by the Red Wings in 2016, has been his ability to fill in on every one of the team's units.
"He's thrust into his role as a penalty killer on a consistent basis," Blashill added. "He's a power-play guy, and he's a matchup guy for us, so that equals lots of ice time. I think he's earned it, he's played good hockey."
Zadina played the sixth game of his NHL season on Saturday night. He served as the third line's right-winger alongside Nielsen (center) and Darren Helm (left wing), finishing minus-1 with no shots in 13:59 of ice time. Penguins netminder Matt Murray stopped 25 of 28 shots.
Detroit added a power-play goal with 3:04 to go. Larkin ripped a shot low blocker-side to beat Murray for his second point of the night, assisted by Fabbri.
Detroit was essentially defeated with 1:46 to go, when pulling the goalie for an extra attacker resulted in the Wings' penalty-kill unit finishing the game, and Pittsburgh added an empty-netter.
Blashill did not have an update afterward on the status of Bertuzzi, who appeared to be hurt after blocking a shot just seconds before Pittsburgh added the empty-net goal.
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.