Detroit — Red Wings fans would probably like to completely forget last season, but let’s look back one more time.
The Wings won a grand total of 17 games (with 39 total points earned) in 71 games, before the pandemic forced the NHL to end its season.
That certainly made for a low bar for the Wings to hurdle to show any sort of improvement.
But, still, the Wings reached an interesting of milestone, of sorts, with Saturday’s 1-0 shootout victory over Tampa, that being their 18th victory of this season.
So, the Wings surpassed last season’s total in this season’s 53rd game, and have 45 points.
That shows progress, in a pure numbers sense.
But coach Jeff Blashill, who is still without a contract for next season, offered further evidence that this Wings team is a much better version from the one a year ago.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt, anybody who’s watched us, that we’re a much better team this year than we were a year ago,” Blashill said. “What I’ve liked here in the last bit is we’ve won a number of games with a whole bunch of young guys in the lineup and that’s a big thing for our organization.
“That’s not to discredit the older guys in the lineup, and they’re making great contributions, and we’ve got a number of them that have done a great job.
“But we’re a better team today than we were a year ago at this time.”
One area Blashill pointed to specifically where the Wings have improved greatly is defensively.
After Sunday’s 2-1 loss, the Wings ranked 20th, allowing 2.98 goals per game. Last season, they finished last (31st) with a ghastly 3.73 average.
“We’re clearly a better defensive team,” Blashill said. “I don’t necessarily believe in a whole bunch of stats that you can make an argument for one way or another. But we’ve got stats we trust, like Grade A (scoring chances) against in different situations, Grade A’s against for the season, and we’re giving our goalies a chance to make saves on a more consistent basis.”
Still, the Wings haven’t progressed on the offensive end.
They ranked last in the NHL last season (2.00 goals per game) and are last again this season (2.15).
“We’re not a better offensive team today than we were a year ago, so we need to find ways to score,” Blashill said. “(But) you can win games when they’re tight.”
Sunday’s game was the Wings’ regular-season home finale in this pandemic-shortened, 56-game season.
The allowed 750 fans were in attendance, spread throughout the lower bowl, to cap what has been a strange, difficult season.
“The whole year has felt surreal, it almost just didn’t feel right,” goaltender Jonathan Bernier said of the four-month NHL season.
The Wings conclude the season with games Friday and Saturday in Columbus.
“Mentally and physically it was very hard for everyone, every player in the NHL. I can’t believe we have two games left, but hopefully by September we can start on time and we have fans (in the arena), for sure.
“Obviously you’re playing for your teammates, for your jersey, for your city, but having fans brings that extra energy that you need and we need them in the building.”
The Wings, generally speaking, have ended many of the recent regular seasons at home, so finishing next weekend in Columbus in itself made Sunday a bit strange.
But, regardless, the circumstances made it feel a bit different Sunday at LCA, although Blashill put some perspective on the matter after a difficult year for fans and hockey personnel alike.
“Strange year for everyone, but it’s the reality of the life we’re living right now,” Blashill said. “It’s a little different when you don’t finish the season at home, a lot of time we’ve finished at home, so it’s a bit different for sure.
“But again, we feel extremely lucky. Our perspective changed a year ago, and you realize how important every day is if you hadn’t prior, and to be able to keep playing here, it’s a great opportunity every day to have a chance to play and coach in the NHL.”
The Wings finished their season series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning with a 3-4-1 record, including ending a 17-game regular-season losing streak in Tampa dating to 2011, in the process.
► Bernier stopped 40 shots, marking his third game this season with 40-or-more saves.
► Adam Erne assisted on Filip Zadina’s goal to match Erne’s career high with 20 points (in his 45th game), set in 2018-19 over 65 games when he was with Tampa.
► Michael Rasmussen appeared in his 100th NHL game, becoming the 13th player from the 2017 draft class to reach that mark. Rasmussen had one shot on net, and was minus-2, in just less than 16 minutes of ice time.
► The Wings recognized Al Sobotka, the ever popular building operations manager and Octopus thrower come playoff time, for his 50th year working with the team.
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