They head to Montreal after being routed for the second time in two weeks, tarnished by a stretch of poor play that can't be pinned entirely on a lack of personnel. As it turned out, the Wings did a better job taking on the best team in the NHL in Tampa Bay Saturday than they did Sunday when they were shelled by the Florida Panthers. The 6-1 final at BB&T Center was as ugly as the score, as the Wings lacked emotion and execution. They are headed for a third straight draft lottery, but it's vital to their future success they don't get there by being blown out.
"We're already out of it, so there's no time to pout and sit around and feel bad," veteran Thomas Vanek said. "There's a lot of guys here who still have a lot to play for, not just for this year but for the rest of their career, and they better realize it quickly because there are a lot of good players coming up."
The Wings fell to 1-6-1 since Feb. 22, a stretch that's seen them trade top-four defenseman Nick Jensen and top-line winger Gustav Nyquist. Top offensive defenseman Mike Green (virus) was out for the season March 5. The team's best player, Dylan Larkin, missed the weekend games because of a strained neck. He's to see a specialist Monday in New York, and if he's cleared to play, he'll join the Wings in Montreal.
"We're under-manned," coach Jeff Blashill said. "When you're shorthanded, whether it's through trades or injury, you need everybody to play their 'A' game every night. The other night we had a group of guys playing their 'B' or 'C' game, and tonight we had a different group of guys play their 'B' or 'C' game. I didn't think it was a lack of want or try, but it certainly was a lack of execution.
"Without a shadow of a doubt, but we have to instill our own confidence. Nobody is going to get us out of this except us. We have to find a way to play better in Montreal."
The Wings have 13 games left. While finishing with a bad record helps their lottery odds, it's one thing to play well and lose, another to embarrass themselves like they did against the Panthers, like they did Feb. 26 against the Canadiens.
Blashill was asked about keeping the younger players in tune with playing hard.
"I shouldn't have to keep them focused," he said. "They should keep themselves focused. They're trying to show that they are going to be big, important parts of this team and moving forward that they are going to help us be a better team and not be in this spot. It shouldn't take me to keep them focused. They better do a damned good job of keeping themselves focused and making sure they're getting better."
Anthony Mantha, unnoticeable in Saturday's 3-2 loss, looked better Sunday. So did Tyler Bertuzzi and Anthony Mantha. That's important, because those three are key parts of the rebuild. But as a team, the Wings allowed the Panthers to score with ease, to shell Jimmy Howard with 43 shots.
"Pretty fun night for them," Vanek said. "Pretty awful for us.
"I don't know if it's fragile. I guess it looks like it, for sure. This whole league is confidence. I say it all the time. You have to work to get confidence, that is for sure, and we didn't do that. It didn't seem like anyone really wanted the puck -- when we did have it, we just kind of gave it right back to them."
The Wings had a chance to build momentum after Vanek's goal midway through the second period. They had a chance to feel better about themselves. But they blew it, and instead the Panthers struck 1:26 into the third period, and that was that.
"We're a step behind everywhere out there," veteran Frans Nielsen said. "I really don't know what to say. It's just not OK. It's been a lot of times this year now. It's worrying a little bit. I mean, we know we're not going to make it, but you want to keep building and at least go into the summer with a good feeling that we are making progress here down the stretch, and right now, we are going backwards."