Red Wings Wednesday Weekly: Don’t Bring Me Down

Welcome to Red Wings Wednesday Weekly! In this weekly column, we will take a look at the Red Wings’ most-recent week of play, identify any players and/or trends that stood out, and then look ahead and find out what the next week may have in store for the team from Hockeytown. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section down below.

Just two games separate the Detroit Red Wings from another offseason without the playoffs. I’d say that it hurts, but the feeling has become all too familiar for the Red Wings and their fans. Regardless, it’s important not to overlook these final two games despite a looming offseason that is sure to pack a punch.

With nothing but pride, a spot on next season’s roster and draft positioning left to play for, it’s going to be very interesting to see how the Red Wings perform this week. If this last week of games is any indication, this club isn’t looking to go down quietly, and Hockeytown could be in for one last treat as the 2020-21 season comes to a close.

As always, let’s start off by looking at what the Red Wings accomplished this week.

Red Wings Finish Even With the Hurricanes

4/29 at Carolina: Loss, 3-1

When all is said and done throughout the NHL this season, there’s a very good chance that the Red Wings will be able to say that they finished with a .500 record against the team that won the President’s Trophy – awarded to the team with the best regular season record. That team is the Carolina Hurricanes and despite the fact that Detroit lost this game, they can hang their hats on an overall solid effort this season against one of, if not the best team in the NHL.

The only real highlight of this game on the Red Wings’ side of things was an incredible goal scored by newcomer Jakub Vrana, who is already endearing himself to the Hockeytown faithful.

This was a game where you thought that maybe the Red Wings would be able to hang in there long enough to squeak out a win, but it wasn’t meant to be. Hurricanes goaltender James Reimer only faced 17 shots, and Carolina walked away with an important two points as they continue towards locking down the top seed in the Discover Central Division.

Overall Grade vs. Carolina: D+

Shocking Outcomes Against the Lightning

I’m going to miss making this many puns on a bi-weekly basis…. Oh well.

Thomas Greiss cemented his status as the NHL’s First Star of the Week with a shutout in the first game of this mini-series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Once again, the Red Wings failed to put together many shots or offensive opportunities as they were outshot 33-15, but that did not matter as their goaltender put together his second-straight shutout, following up the 33-save shutout he had against the Columbus Blue Jackets earlier in the week. With a 1.000 save percentage (SV%) this week, it’s hard to argue with the honor bestowed upon the German goaltender by the NHL.

The first game was ultimately decided in a shootout which featured goals from Vrana, Filip Zadina, Valtteri Filppula and Sam Gagner. Shutting out the Lightning is one thing (and a big thing at that), but to also go out and outlast them in a shootout? You can’t be too upset with that.

Jonathan Bernier tended the crease in the second game against the Lightning, and despite his best efforts, the result was not the same as the first game. This game once again saw the Red Wings get heavily outshot and out-chanced as they relied on their goaltender to give them a chance to win the game. While a goal from Zadina ensured that Detroit had a fighting chance as the game dwindled away, they simply could not muster up enough offense to seriously challenge Lightning goaltender Christopher Gibson, whose last win in the NHL was Mar. 20 of 2018. Tampa Bay suffocated the Wings in the final minutes, which led to a 2-1 loss for Detroit.

Final Grade vs. Tampa Bay: B-

3 Takeaways From Last Week’s Games

1. The Red Wings’ Offense is Depleted

On opening night of the 2020-21 season, the Red Wings’ top-six consisted of the following players: Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, Anthony Mantha, Robby Fabbri, Bobby Ryan and Zadina. Of those players, only Zadina skated in this week’s games. While Bertuzzi has been missing from the lineup for the majority of the season, and Mantha has effectivelt been replaced by Vrana, this goes to show what kind of hit the Red Wings’ offense has taken as their season enters its dying days.

Give full marks to the likes of Zadina, Vrana, newcomer Joe Veleno and anyone else who is trying their best to compensate for all the lost offense, but the fact of the matter is that the Red Wings simply do not have enough depth to make up for all these injuries. The team is still hanging in games despite that fact, and I think that should be commended.

2. Detroit’s Tandem is Too Little Too Late

As I already mentioned, Greiss secured the First Star of the Week honors from the NHL by recording two straight shutouts during the week of April 26 to May 2. His tandem partner Bernier has a .915 SV% over his last five starts, which is impressive considering, during that span, he was chased for four goals on 12 shots on April 20 against the Dallas Stars. In fact, both goaltenders have done well enough recently that they are both now among the top half of goalies in the league.

If you’ve been following along with this series, you know that this hasn’t always been the case. There was a long stretch in the beginning/middle of the season where Greiss was among the league’s worst goaltenders, statistically speaking, while Bernier seemed to be the only goaltender capable of gathering points for the Red Wings. While it’s great to see both guys playing well, you can’t help but wonder where the Red Wings might be if they had received this level of goaltending throughout the season.

3. The Red Wings Aren’t Tanking

When you hold the Lightning to just two goals over two games, collecting two points in the standings in the process, I think it’s fair to say that the team in question is not actively tanking. With 45 points, the Red Wings currently sit just outside the bottom five in terms of league standings. If the season ended today, Detroit would have a 7.5 percent chance at landing the top pick in the 2021 draft, and a 15.3 percent chance of picking within the top two.

There are still plenty of games left to be decided, so I wouldn’t get attached to those lottery odds quite yet. However, with Detroit’s improved play this season, I think it’s very likely that we see the Red Wings’ first round pick land somewhere around sixth overall – the same positioning that landed them Zadina in 2018 and Moritz Seider in 2019. After last year’s lottery fiasco, it’s nice to see the Red Wings resist the urge to tank and instead embrace the challenge of playing winning hockey while in the midst of a rebuild.

Upcoming Matchups

At Columbus Blue Jackets (5/7, 7 PM ET; 5/8, 7 PM)

Statistical Leaders (53 Games):
Goals – Oliver Bjorkstrand (15)
Points – Bjorkstrand (39)
Wins – Joonas Korpisalo (nine)
SV% – Elvis Merzlikins (.916)

“The Battle for the Basement” in the Discover Central Division takes center stage this weekend as the loser of this series (if there is one) will ultimately finish the season in last place in the division, thus resulting in better draft odds. While the Red Wings were a popular, if not unanimous pick to end up in this position, the Blue Jackets were often picked as one of the teams in the mix for a playoff spot in this division. For all the things that have gone right for the Red Wings this season, just as many (if not more) have gone wrong for Columbus.

John Tortorella Columbus Blue Jackets
This could be the last we see of John Tortorella behind the bench for the Columbus Blue Jackets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella seems destined to be let go from his position in the offseason, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to let his players float around during the last days of their season. Tanking isn’t in his vocabulary, and his team has just as many players with something to prove as the Red Wings do. Neither team is going to want the distinction of finishing last in the Central, so we might actually be in for a hotly contested final series between these two teams.

Players to Watch

As far as Columbus is concerned, I’m going to be watching to see if Merzlikins can continue his strong play against the Red Wings this season. Through four games against Detroit, he has a sparkling 1.99 goals against average, as well as a .938 SV% – by far his best marks against any team in the Discover Central Division. While he hasn’t had the kind of season he hoped to have, he has given the Blue Jackets a chance to win more often than not this season. After the answer heard around the world, one thing is clear: this kid wants to win.

As for the Red Wings, I’m going to cheat and name two players: Zadina and Vrana. Detroit’s offense pretty much runs exclusively through these two as they deal with all the injuries I previously mentioned. While both Czech forwards have great offensive tools, it should surprise nobody that the Red Wings’ offense is struggling with only these two as viable threats on offense. Vrana has been an absolute monster since joining the Red Wings as he has seven points in nine games, and is a plus-2. Zadina has put his playmaking abilities on display this season, but it’s his shot that fans are dying to see produce more goals as the season comes to an end. We all got a taste of what his shot can do in the second game against Tampa Bay this week:

This final series between Columbus and Detroit could come down to which of these three players shines the brightest. If the Red Wings’ offensive struggles persist, the Blue Jackets should be able to capitalize.

Final Thoughts

With just two games to go, the full picture of the Red Wings’ 2020-21 season is almost in focus. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m very encouraged by what I’ve seen this season. Sure, they were blown-out a few more times than you care to see (not that you ever care to see it), but this group’s overall commitment to playing strong team defense gives me hope that these habits and lessons will carry over to next season and beyond as general manager Steve Yzerman continues to rebuild this roster. It’s clear that there’s an overall depth issue, and even when everybody is healthy, there is still a scoring issue, but these are things that can be remedied as guys like Jonatan Berggren and Lucas Raymond begin pushing for roster spots.

What are your big takeaways from this season? Are you feeling good heading into the offseason, or are you disappointed by another losing season? Let me hear where your head is at in the comments section down below!

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