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Red Wings Head Into All-Star Break In Ultra-Fitting Fashion

By: Will Burchfield

If the Red Wings wanted to paint a portrait of the first half of their season, they created a masterpiece in Wednesday night's 4-0 loss to the Maple Leafs.

Every little detail was there. Every brushstroke was precise.

They failed to mount a sustained forecheck. They struggled to generate scoring chances, and squandered those they did. They came up empty on the power play. At the other end of the ice, they were sloppy and slow. They received below-average goaltending. And it all transpired at home, where the Wings have won just 10 times in 24 games.

It was an apropos ending to the first half of the season, a 49-game crawl that's left the Wings tied for last place in the Eastern Conference and five points out of a playoff spot.

"The grind is the grind," said Jeff Blashill. "We've gotta keep grinding and finding ways. The one thing I do totally believe in is this locker room and our ability to grind. We've got some of the best leaders that have been in this league a long time and we're going to come back Monday and we're going to grind and we're going to find a way to win a hockey game on Tuesday."

How often have we heard Blashill strike this tone this season? Optimistic. Defiant in the face of defeat. And how rarely has the team lived up to it? Heck, if the Wings could "find a way" half as often as they say they "need to," their ill-fated playoff streak would be in much better shape.

But back to Wednesday night. Back to Detroit's final game before the five-day All-Star break. With a chance to make a statement against a team they're chasing in the standings, a team that occupies the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, the Wings came out slow. They mustered just six shots on goal in the first period and went into the break trailing 1-0.

"I thought we had the same energy as the other side," Henrik Zetterberg said, which, depending on your perspective, is either a good thing or a bad thing. "There's not a lot of room when we play against each other so there's not going to be a lot of chances, there's not going to be 40 shots on net."

But how many times have the Wings reached the 40-shot mark this season? (Twice, to be exact.) This is a team that ranks 25th in the NHL in shots per game (28.7), in large part because they can't sustain control of the puck in the offensive zone. If they dump it in, they have a hard time retrieving it. If they carry it in, they struggle to keep possession. And when they do get a look at goal, it's far too often a one-and-done opportunity.

The Wings finished with just 22 shots on Wednesday night, making life quite easy for Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen.

"We couldn't get a lot of things going," said Niklas Kronwall. "We tried, but we got stuck spending too much time in our own zone, couldn't generate enough offense."

"I don't know if we had enough zone time," he added later. "I don't know if we had enough shots."

Still, the chances were there for the Wings. They weren't plentiful, but they were there. Gustav Nyquist was set up nicely by Thomas Vanek in the first period, but flubbed his shot wide from the left hash marks. Riley Sheahan had a couple whacks in front in the second, but couldn't force the puck past Andersen. And Darren Helm, speaking of things we've seen before, was denied on a breakaway in the third.

"I thought we had enough chances there that we could have scored on and it could have been a little different," said Zetterberg.

Blashill agreed.

"I thought we had some real chances where we just didn't score," he said. "I think that's going to happen some nights."

It absolutely will, even to the best of them. But for the Wings, squandered scoring chances are the norm more than the exception. "Some nights" are most nights. And while the team's low shooting percentage might be due for a slight correction, it's also fairly indicative of the talent on the roster. At some point, you are who you are.

After their seventh whitewashing of the season on Wednesday night, no team in the NHL has been shutout more than the Wings.

"I didn't know that, thanks for letting me know," said Zetterberg, in good-natured fashion. "But it is hard. I thought we were working hard to get our chances, but we can't find a way to put it behind the goalie."

The power play, typically an aid to offensively-challenged teams, hasn't helped. The Wings have converted just 11.3 percent of their opportunities to date, by far the worst mark in the league. After going 0/2 against the Leafs, they are now 3/42 dating back to Dec. 29 and 5/81 dating back to Dec. 1. There are plenty of questions, but seemingly no answers.

"It's frustrating," said Kronwall. "Of course."

What else is there to say?

The Wings' issues aren't limited to the offensive side of the puck. That was clear on Wednesday night, just as it's been clear all season.

On Toronto's first goal, sustained offensive pressure forced defenseman Xavier Oullet into a turnover in front of his own net and Auston Matthews smoothly took care of the rest. And the Leafs' next two goals, though aided by fluky bounces, were once again products of the Wings chasing the puck in their own zone.

"For me, the one thing structurally…was our D-zone coverage," said Blashill. "I thought we were too slow and we gotta be faster, so that's guys winning puck battles and puck races and that's structurally making sure we're faster than them."

The Wings aren't a fast team, especially on the blue line. That makes for tough sledding in today's NHL, where only the spry seem to thrive. In terms of transitioning from defense to offense, Detroit often looks a step too slow.

"Again, we gotta be faster out of our own zone," said Kronwall, who remembers what it was like when they were.

Then there is Petr Mrazek – and the Wings' goaltending situation as a whole. The former can be described as struggling. The latter can be described as bleak. Mrazek lost the starting job to a forsaken veteran earlier this season, regained it when said veteran got hurt, then lost it again, this time to an unheralded rookie.

He was back in the pipes on Wednesday night and surrendered four goals – the fourth of the galling variety – inflating his goals against average to 3.16 and dropping his save percentage to .896.

Those are the kind of numbers that opened the door first for Jimmy Howard, and later for Jared Coreau. Howard was sensational. Coreau has been fine. Together along with Mrazek, they have a save percentage of .905, which ranks 20th in the league.

"Whoever's in there, I think we got three guys that are very capable, have been capable in this league, whether its short term or long term," Blashill said. "We need whoever's in the net that night to be elite. You don't win in this league without elite goaltending, so that's a night-to-night basis. I think we've got guys that can be elite, and one or two or three have to grab it and be elite."

At this point, one would suffice.

With 20 wins through 49 games, the Wings have dug themselves quite the hole. In terms of making the playoffs, their deficit in points is heightened by the number of teams – eight, to be exact – they must leap in the standings. It's getting late early in Hockeytown, and the players themselves know it.

"Let's be honest, I think we're all watching the standings. There's no doubt about that," said Kronwall. "But again, we gotta stay positive and just keep grinding away. There's no way out of this. It's got to be the guys in here doing it together, basically everything's going to come down to that."

Well that, yes, but also so much more.

When Blashill was asked how he'd describe the Wings' first half of the season, he replied, "I'm not worried about it. I'm worried about moving forward here. We played a game tonight and we're going to play a game next Tuesday. I'm not worried about describing anything."

No problem. Wednesday night's game was descriptive enough.

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