DETROIT — After the month the Detroit Red Wings have had, it certainly feels a bit off for them to be going into the All-Star break talking about a consolation point.
Especially in a game against the Ottawa Senators, a team that has given Detroit fits the last two seasons, a win would have been the capper to the Red Wings’ most productive month of hockey in over a decade. Instead, the Senators once again came into Detroit and got the best of the Red Wings, taking a 3-2 overtime win Wednesday in a game that fell a bit flat compared to the fireworks these teams have created against each other the last two seasons.
Zoom out for a second, though, and the Red Wings’ January was a significant success. Detroit revived its season with a 9-2-2 record — earning 20 points to blow past a team goal that even their coach first thought was overly ambitious.
In the big picture, there’s still a long way to go — in this season and in the team’s overall building process. And this team has shown all year it is capable of streaks at both extremes. But the fact that the Red Wings pulled themselves out of a significant rut, and into a playoff spot, in one month is a testament to their progress, and to the difference their veteran depth has made this season.
So even while Detroit surely wanted the second point Wednesday, the consolation is well earned in this case, and the Red Wings can indeed rest (somewhat) easy as they begin their vacation.
Five thoughts on the game, and where they stand:
1. The Senators certainly seem to have the Red Wings’ number. Ottawa has beaten Detroit in nine of their last 11 meetings over the past three seasons.
But I have to say, this game took on a very different character than their last several games against each other. It was hard to know what to expect going in after their last meeting at Little Caesars Arena included Dylan Larkin being knocked unconscious and David Perron getting a six-game suspension. When Larkin and Mathieu Joseph — who was the initial half of the double-hit that knocked Larkin out — started the game against each other, it seemed like anything could happen. The fans certainly let Joseph hear their frustration all night.
Instead, it was just a tight-checking, 3-2 hockey game. Both teams kept each other largely to the outside. There were only four penalties and no serious scrums. The shots and expected goals totals were close. There was no imposing of physical will — the difference was simply that Ottawa made the most of its chances, while Detroit put most of its best looks wide of the net.
Next up: All-Star break. pic.twitter.com/nWbsAb9pKC
— Detroit Red Wings (@DetroitRedWings) February 1, 2024
There’s an argument to be made that the Red Wings should have gone out of their way to try to send more of a physical message, but frankly, given that they are in the playoff race and the Senators are not, I can understand Detroit wanting to stay focused on the task at hand. Larkin, at least, got a measure of revenge by scoring a tying goal to force overtime. The Red Wings just couldn’t finish the job — the Senators won the opening draw in the extra frame and just possessed the puck the whole way until Shane Pinto turned a diving deflection into an overtime winner.
2. What will be interesting now is how the Red Wings come out of the break. Their January success has put them six points up in the wild-card race, and just a point back of third place in the Atlantic Division. They’ll now get to rest up for a week-plus before getting back key contributors Patrick Kane, Ben Chiarot and Ville Husso upon their return.
But in some ways, the break comes at an inopportune time for the Red Wings, who would surely love to keep their rhythm going while they’re hot.
“The one negative about the break is, sometimes when you’re away from it that long, you forget, or you don’t maybe have the muscle memory of how hard we’re actually competing,” Red Wings coach Derek Lalonde said. “So we’ll have to get that back in a couple practices.”
And there will be real urgency to do so. Their first three games out of the break include two games against Vancouver — which pulled off a blockbuster trade Wednesday night to land center Elias Lindholm — and one against Connor McDavid and the Oilers, who have won 16 straight. Not long after that, they’ll host Colorado. There won’t be any time to ease back into it.
3. I asked Larkin the most important thing he wants to see carry over from this month to after the break.
“A big emphasis for us is keeping goals out of our net,” Larkin said. “We always have a goal, kind of two or less (goals against) for the game, and we’ve been right there a lot of times, and goaltending (and) penalty killing has helped that, but I think our team defense has improved. Our puck management, we’re not as much high-risk, high-reward, we’re doing it right and grinding teams down, so I feel this month we’ve really learned what our game is, and how to win hockey games.”
Lalonde said that the team mantra of a two-goal max started by necessity, right around the start of the New Year. Detroit’s December didn’t leave much time for practices coming out of their European trip, but they put a real emphasis on defense once they got back into a practice rhythm. Whether it’s that simple, or more a product of just being healthier than they were in December (which I think is being underrated right now), the results are hard to argue. The Red Wings have now given up no more than two goals in regulation in eight of their last 11 games.
Larkin’s right that a big part of that is Alex Lyon, who is fourth in the NHL in save percentage at .922 entering the break, but the team emphasis is showing as well. One example: Larkin saying that he wished his goal Wednesday would have actually gone off Christian Fischer, just to reward Fischer for the dirty work he usually does.
“He deserves it with all the — he’ll tell you all about his third assists, and his kind of points that don’t end up on the score sheet — but a guy like that just does a lot of good things for the team,” Larkin said. “And we have guys like that up and down our lineup.”
Worth noting: Fischer’s screen legitimately did have a big impact on Larkin’s goal, even though he didn’t get a piece of it. Just like his hard, snow-spraying stop on Vegas goalie Logan Thompson helped create Andrew Copp’s goal over the weekend.
4. Larkin, by the way, certainly has the goals to spare. He now has 10 in his last 12 games (to go with six assists in that span), and is up to 23 goals on the season.
One of my preseason bold predictions was that he would become the Red Wings’ first 40-goal scorer since Marian Hossa. When Larkin missed time due to injury, though, I was ready to write that one off as a miss. It’ll still be a tall task, of course, and Larkin will have a hard time staying this hot, but worth noting: He’s now on pace for 39.7 — even with the missed games.
5. When the Red Wings come back from the break, all eyes will be on what happens to their lineup, which has been clicking but stands to get back Kane, Chiarot and Husso.
Obviously, the question will be most interesting in goal, where Lyon has been a horse for the Red Wings. They won’t want to overwork him, but it will be interesting to see the split between him and Husso.
Chiarot, too, certainly will be back in taking big minutes, but none of Detroit’s blueliners have necessarily looked like they need to come out.
Perhaps it’s too simplistic to just look at the ice time in this conversation, but up front, Klim Kostin played just 6:53 Wednesday night. He feels like the most logical player to take out to insert Kane. More interesting will be how it affects the Red Wings’ line combinations: Larkin, Alex DeBrincat and Lucas Raymond have looked good together, but Kane and DeBrincat’s chemistry is something Detroit has leaned on as well.
It’s always tricky to change a lineup that’s been winning, but these are key players for Detroit coming back. And while the break may not be well-timed for the Red Wings overall, it does line up well to work those pieces back into the mix.
(Photo of an airborne Shane Pinto of Ottawa in front of Detroit goaltender Alex Lyon in the first period Wednesday: Rick Osentoski / USA Today)