Red Wings thoughts: Detroit entering a crucial stretch without Dylan Larkin

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This Detroit Red Wings season has already been one of dramatic highs and lows, and the last week has been the epitome.

First, there was a win over division rival Buffalo Sabres that gave them six wins in their last seven. Next came the much-anticipated debut of Patrick Kane, and the sizzle he still very much brings with him. Even in an overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks, the excitement was still building.

And then, a crash. A loss to the Ottawa Senators that was dwarfed by a harrowing on-ice scene when captain Dylan Larkin was knocked unconscious. A six-game suspension to David Perron in the wake of that incident. A road loss in Dallas in which Detroit’s much-touted depth was simply overtaxed by those absences. The defensive and goaltending flaws that Detroit had largely survived in the preceding week came to a head on top of all that.

Taken all together, Tuesday’s game in St. Louis suddenly had the feel of a must-win — even if, in the big picture, no mid-December game can truly merit that moniker.

In context, though, the facts were that Detroit had lost the last three, and after Tuesday, had the Carolina Hurricanes and a visit to an upstart Philadelphia Flyers team next. If the Red Wings couldn’t find a way to two points against the St. Louis Blues, there was a real risk of losing their grip on a playoff spot (however premature) by week’s end.

That outcome wouldn’t have buried them by any means — they’ve proven by this point that they can get themselves out of a rut and onto a winning streak — but it would have made the picture a lot more daunting, especially until Larkin, Perron and the injured J.T. Compher return.

And really, the 6-4 win in St. Louis on Tuesday doesn’t change that. The Red Wings are facing a tall task without three of their top six forwards, and while the December schedule is largely manageable, it’s probably a portion from which they’ll need to bank points for when the long road trips of February and March arrive. That means they’re going to need to find some answers.

Tuesday, fortunately, was a step in that direction. Some thoughts.

1. Detroit shouldn’t be without Compher too long, as he’s been listed as day to day for the last week or so. But playing without their two top centers is certainly the biggest challenge for the Red Wings. They’re as deep at that crucial position as they’ve been in years, due largely to Compher’s arrival, but when lopping off the top half of the depth chart, it gets itchy for anyone pretty fast.

That’s why it was big to see Joe Veleno deliver with two big assists in the win over St. Louis. First, he set up Lucas Raymond’s game-tying goal less than a minute into the third period, taking a pass from Kane on the goal line and directing it quickly to Raymond in the slot, where he snuck it through Jordan Binnington. It was Detroit’s lone power-play goal of the night, but it came at the right time.

The more significant assist, though, came from a play Veleno made at the opposite end of the ice, winning a board battle and flipping the puck deep for Michael Rasmussen to pop into an empty net. That effectively put the game out of reach, and while it wasn’t a highlight-reel assist, I’m willing to bet Detroit’s coaches will be even happier with it than the power-play helper.

What a play by Joe Veleno to force the turnover that leads to Rasmussen's empty netter. 💪 #LGRW pic.twitter.com/k8IyirUG3Z

— Ryan Hana (@RyanHanaWWP) December 13, 2023

The two points put Veleno up to 12 points in 28 games this year. Last year, he had 20 in 81. He’s on track to smash that career high, but it’s his ability to win battles and be trusted defensively that will continue to ramp up his minutes. He’s given the Red Wings’ coaching staff reason to trust him when this kind of situation arose, and he’s being rewarded with true all-situations usage. He played 23 minutes Tuesday, the most of any Red Wings skater.

2. Another two-point night for Detroit came from Raymond, who had the tying goal and then set up Robby Fabbri for the eventual game winner just minutes later.

Before this season, I called Raymond the X-factor for Detroit’s season, coming off a quieter sophomore season. The season is now two months old, and Raymond has consistently been one of the Red Wings’ best players.

His production has rebounded, now at 10 goals and 24 points through 28 games, which has him on pace for 70 points over a full season. But as with Veleno, most important has been the rate at which he’s winning crucial puck battles down low. Raymond has always been skilled, but those extra battles he’s winning are giving him extra puck touches, and that’s turned into extra offense because of his special talent.

It’s all gone exactly as you’d have drawn up in Year 3, and the Red Wings will now lean on him more than ever with Larkin out.

3. Detroit has given up 21 goals in its last four games, which speaks to problems all over the ice. When a number is that glaring, nobody’s blameless. There are too many odd-man rushes going the other way, including when Detroit has the power play, with three short-handed goals against in that span.

But while the chances may be glaring, the Red Wings need a goalie to step up and assert that they can steal a save they maybe shouldn’t from time to time. You can’t blame a goalie for letting in a shot on a two-on-one or two-on-zero. But to make the postseason, it’s also not enough for a goalie to stop the pucks they “should.”

Over the last month, Alex Lyon’s body of work has been the best in that regard, but it was good to see Ville Husso make a couple of key saves against the Blues, too — even if he seems to have taken a step back this season from the level he showed for long stretches last season.

It’s easy to be a prisoner of the moment, especially when it comes to a position as scrutinized as goaltending, but Husso’s ability has never been in doubt. If he can recapture some of what he was able to do in his first season in Detroit, it would go a long way toward preserving the Red Wings’ playoff hopes in the short term. And really, ditto for Lyon, who does seem to have a certain swagger in the net.

4. It’s easy to forget the first goal in a game that saw 10 of them, but it had to feel good for Jake Walman to score against St. Louis, the organization in which he spent most of his early career, but one in which he was not given a meaningful NHL opportunity. He’s up to six goals on the year now, which leads Red Wings defensemen — and would lead all Blues defensemen by two.

5. Jonatan Berggren was one of three Red Wings forwards to be called up following Larkin’s injury and Perron’s suspension, and he’s made the most of it, with two goals in two games.

Berggren has been one of the victims of Detroit’s added depth this year, getting boxed out of the opening night lineup, and that blockage only worsened with the acquisition of Kane, who is also a smaller winger who requires key offensive minutes to thrive, but with a superstar’s pedigree.

For that reason, it does feel essential for Berggren to show something in this opportunity, however long it may be.

And so far, he’s doing what he needs to — both for Detroit and for himself.

(Photo of Michael Rasmussen (27) being congratulated after scoring against the Blues: Jeff Curry / USA Today)

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