The Red Wings Are On Red Alert

The long-suffering Detroit Red Wings fans’ enjoyment of the team’s best season in several years has been rudely interrupted by a series of setbacks and humiliations. On Feb. 27, after an 8-3 dismantling of the Capitals, this franchise was flying high. But since then, they’ve smashed into a big glass window. The Wings have lost five straight, often in miserable fashion, and after Saturday’s defeat against the Golden Knights, coupled with Tampa’s drubbing of Philly, they’re no longer in control of their playoff destiny.

While wild card hopefuls would typically use the final days before the trade deadline as an opportunity to improve, the Wings that took the ice in Vegas were markedly worse than the ones that crushed the Caps. Aside from shedding fringe fourth-liner Klim Kostin, Steve Yzerman avoided any deals with fellow general managers—a mild disappointment for a team that still had glaring needs. As they were getting steamrolled by the Panthers last weekend, the Wings also lost top scorer and fearless leader Dylan Larkin for at least two weeks to injury. Without their lodestar, Detroit looked completely undeserving of the playoff hunt. On Wednesday night, they allowed 54 shots and fell 7-2 to the Avs. Against the lowly Arizona Coyotes, they never got their skates under them, surrendering three first-period goals and eventually losing 4-0. While facing Vegas on a back-to-back was always going to be a tough challenge, and the Red Wings managed a competitive game aside from an apprehensive stretch in the first period, the result was yet more dropped points that they can’t get back. Even the positive spin in the postgame felt limp: “We showed character. That’s the best game of the losing streak so far,” Moritz Seider said.

Given how impressive the Wings have looked on a few different winning stretches this year, it’d be unfair to cast this dumpy week as the team’s sole reality. But without Larkin’s creative and emotional spark, Detroit doesn’t have any clear-cut strengths to fall back on. They’re still a top-10 NHL team by goals scored, thanks to a high shooting percentage, but they’re one of the worst at just generating chances in the offensive zone, and they don’t make up for this shortcoming with sturdy defense. While Alex Lyon briefly appeared to be the unexpected answer to the team’s goalie question, it’s been two weeks since he delivered a useful start.

With Larkin fueling the top line alongside the veteran presence of Patrick Kane and the streaky scoring of Alex DeBrincat, I could buy this team as one of the eight best in the East; there was a professionalism to that trio that trickled down to the rest of the lines. But without Larkin, the remaining two are a drag on the team’s productivity, and it’s become painfully apparent how much work Larkin was doing—as a scorer, passer, defender, ice-time eater—to prop this whole group up. In his absence, the Jenga tower has collapsed. The active roster is as laughable as the darkest days of a few years ago. And with the trade deadline passed, the Wings have to rely on guys they’ve already used to carry them to a turnaround.

Detroit has already won enough games that it’s almost guaranteed this season will be their best since they last made the playoffs in 2016. But that doesn’t make it an automatic success. For all the recent irrelevance, the winged wheel still represents one of the luckiest (perhaps spoiled) adult fanbases in hockey. These years of losing were endured specifically and only because fans believed that Yzerman, their hero, would eventually be able to construct another dynasty. At times, this season felt like the payoff to all the ugliness. But with 18 games remaining, the Wings still need to show improvement to make it something more than another waste. This is not the Buffalo Sabres; getting close is no reward. For a city that once ate first-round appearances for breakfast, the difference between a ninth-place finish in the conference and a 13th-place finish is nothing at all.

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