Can Detroit Red Wings save their 24-season playoff streak?
“Go do the job.”
That was Dave Hakstol’s marching orders to his Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.
Unfortunately, the Detroit Red Wings missed their alarm or hit traffic on the interstate or maybe there was a really long line at Starbucks because everyone was ordering Frappuccinos for some reason. Because they were late for their job, giving up 23 shots in the first period, registering only three of their own and eventually losing a 4-3 decision that left the Wings one point up on the Flyers for the final wild card spot, with Philadelphia owning two games in-hand.
"The first five minutes we were good,” said coach Jeff Blashill. “There was nothing wrong with us until we got scored on. Once we got scored on we got on our heels way too easily. We didn't show the resilience that you need to show after getting scored on. They gained momentum off it but we got to make sure we quell the momentum."
They didn’t, and while the Wings showed some spark here and there in the second and third periods, it wasn’t enough. Philly was playing a playoff game. Detroit miserably fell short of matching that intensity.
And now their hold on that 24-season playoff streak appears tenuous.
“The reality is, the streak’s important because it’s impossible to do,” former coach Mike Babcock told Yahoo Sports in 2013. “All you’ve got to do is look at pro sports. It’s impossible. So we’ve been able to maintain it. I know when I arrived here eight years ago, we said the same thing at that time. … You didn’t know if you could keep the thing going."
Players and coaches come and go from rosters every season. The new guys are always eager to lay the negative aspects of a team’s history on previous generations. But maintaining a standard of excellence, and the fear of being the ones to fumble it away, are a hell of a motivator.
“You try not to think about it, look at it, you just go out and play the game. But in the end of the day, it’s in the back of your head,” said defenseman Brendan Smith to the Detroit News.
The pressure’s building. The Wings are 5-5-0 in their last 10 games. They’ve lost veteran defenseman Niklas Kronwall to injury, and all he was doing at the time was playing a team-high 22:42 every night on average.
Goalie Petr Mrazek, in his first season as a full-fledged NHL starter, peaked somewhere around Feb. 12 – since then, he’s had a .884 adjusted save percentage in 11 games, after going 38 games with a .949 save percentage (both at even strength – Mrazek actually had a better adjusted save percentage than Braden Holtby through Feb. 12).
Last night wasn’t on Mrazek – the fact that the Flyers had 11 scoring chances in the first at 5-on-5 to the Wings’ one and yet the score was just 2-0 is sort of miraculous. But it’s been a minute or two since Mrazek stole a game while facing a high shot total.
Many of the Wings’ underlying numbers have been decent over the last 10 games: a 5-on-5 goal differential of minus-3, strong overall possession numbers and they’re outshooting opponents 34.1 to 31 shots per game.
But what they’re lacking is that intangible thing offensively to get them over the finish line. A hot scoring trio. A player stepping up for a huge goal. Something.
Henrik Zetterberg hasn’t scored a goal since Feb. 18. Dylan Larkin has slammed into the rookie wall: one goal in his last 11 games. (It's entirely possible Holmgren actually kidnapped him.) The Brad Richards renaissance from the Stadium Series game didn’t exactly last: two points (both goals) in eight games. And the power-play overall has generated two goals in its last 14 games.
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And yet offensive spark plug Andreas Athanasiou's ice time remains ... rather low.
One disturbing trend for the Wings this season, that was a factor last night: bad starts.
Overall on the season, they have a minus-10 goal differential in the first period, and that trend hasn't been bucked: In their last 14 games, Detroit has been outscored 13-3 in the first period, third-worst in the NHL during that span. (The Capitals, actually, were worst at a minus-13, but they actually have a reliable offense, so…)
People will want to lay the blame on Blashill, but this has been an issue long before he took over. To me, this falls on the players just as much as the coaching staff. Every single player knew what this game meant, and for the team to be that bad in a crucial game makes me long for the days when the Wings were the team with the killer instinct, knowing when to put a team away.
The Wings are not quite dead yet, but the cart is coming up the road. The Wings are now only a single point up on the Flyers, who still have 2 games in hand. The Wings no longer control their own destiny, as the Flyers can pass them with a win of any kind in any of those 2 games. The Wings will get another shot at Philly in a couple of weeks, but this was the Wings' biggest game of the season and they came out as if it was an exhibition game.
When you hear Blashill talk, you can close your eyes and hear Mike Babcock. It’s the same cadence, the same coach-speak. When he took over for Babcock, many thought it would be a lateral move at worst and, at best, he would be a coach that might squeeze a bit more out of players who might had tuned out the current multi-millionaire coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But say this about Babcock: While the continuation of the Red Wings’ playoff streak has come down to the final week, and sometimes weekend, in the last three seasons, Babcock found a way to coach through adversity and get them in.
It doesn’t get more adverse than getting punched in the mouth by the team chasing you, a team that has both momentum and math on its side as it closes in on your playoff seed.
Let’s see what kind of motivator the panic of pride is for Blashill and these Wings.
Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.
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