For Detroit Red Wings, heartbreak comes with hope

Patrick Kane knew it was over when none of his teammates spilled onto the ice after his shootout winner: “I figured there wasn’t too much to celebrate.” They knew what Kane would soon find out: the Capitals had snuck past the Flyers through a back door that the Wings had left open, rendering Detroit’s thrilling 5-4 win over the Canadiens moot. Washington had clinched the final playoff spot in the East.

Later, Kane looked around the locker room and ached for his teammates. For a three-time Cup winner, he’s no stranger to the emptiness of defeat after 17 seasons in the NHL. But some of the Red Wings’ younger players like Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider, even captain Dylan Larkin, had just had their hearts ripped out for the first time.

“I’ve been around a while, it’s always tough when you’re eliminated. But just some of the guys that are in here that had so much hope for the season, to see the disappointment of realizing we’re out, it’s tough to see,” said Kane.

“It’s sad to see,” he said.

David Perron felt the same way. A 17-year vet and Cup winner himself, Perron has endured plenty of emotional lows in the NHL. He also has the highs to numb some of the pain, unlike some of his teammates. He hurt more for them than he did himself on Tuesday night: “It’s one of their first big letdowns.” Perron specifically referenced Larkin after explaining on Monday how badly he wanted to help the Red Wings’ captain return his hometown team to the playoffs for the first time in eight years.

“It weighs on him, it’s hard on him, and it’s tough for me to go through that with him,” Perron said. “I really wish we came through for him.”

Larkin, 27, seemed to be fighting back tears when he spoke with reporters in front of his locker: “It’s hard. It’s gutting. We’re pretty — we’re pretty sad in here. Just to see it come to an end, we have a great group of guys … I wish we had more with this group and wish we got the opportunity to play in the playoffs. It would have been so much fun.”

The Red Wings finished with as many points — and more total wins — than the Capitals, but Washington held the tiebreaker with more regulation wins. The Wings have no one to really blame but themselves. If they were better than the Caps, more deserving than the Caps, they shouldn’t have lost to them twice down the stretch, including at home last week. The Capitals finished with the worst goal differential (-37) by a playoff team in 33 years; they also finished 2-1 against the Red Wings.

Detroit did make progress this season. The players did their best to remind themselves of that in the fog of despair. Derek Lalonde mentioned it several times in his postgame interview, specifically the fact that the Wings improved by 11 points from last season and won 14 games in which they trailed in the third, including the last two nights in dramatic fashion against Montreal: “That’s 28 points alone with just resiliency,” said Lalonde.

“I feel awful for the guys because this group battled, they over-achieved, they kept fighting al year long,” said Lalonde. “I just really like a lot of positives. The message to them after — as tough as it was — was, they’ve pushed this group forward and we did take a step. We gotta keep going to take that next step.”

The Red Wings’ 91 points were their most since 2015-16, the last time they made the playoffs. Their eight-year drought is now the single worst in franchise history, which is the weight on Larkin’s shoulders. It is lightened, just a little, by a fourth straight season of growth under GM Steve Yzerman. While progress has been painfully slow as the Red Wings build through the draft, “to see the future right in front of us is pretty special,” Larkin said.

“I think this season was a statement that the organization’s back and heading in the right direction,” said Larkin.

“There’s a lot to be excited about if you’re a Red Wings fan going forward,” said Kane.

Detroit’s rebuild has taken longer than anyone would have liked, Yzerman included. That’s partly the product of never having picked higher than fourth overall in the draft. The first-rounders they have selected propelled the team in this playoff race. Lucas Raymond is a rising star. Moritz Seider is a rock on the blueline. Both of them will likely sign long-term extensions this offseason. Simon Edvinsson, who probably should have been summoned from Grand Rapids sooner than last month, looks like another stalwart on the backend.

“You saw young players taking a step in leadership,” said Larkin.

“I know how hard it is right now,” said Perron, “but I’m so proud of a lot of our guys, the young guys especially, how many steps forward they’ve taken this year.”

Both Perron and Kane spoke to Detroit’s team game growing over the course of the season. When Kane debuted with the Red Wings back in December, he said they “were more of a run-and-gun team” that played loose, high-scoring hockey. Indeed, Kane’s first game with the Wings was a 6-5 overtime loss to the NHL-worst Sharks in which Detroit blew a 4-0 lead; talk about a point the Wings would like back. His first win with the team was 6-4 over the Blues.

“And as time went on through the season, I think we really started playing more of a playoff game and found ways to get wins from that,” said Kane. “There’s so much potential in this room. They have a lot of core pieces that will help them for a long time … and guys that really carried us down the stretch: Larkin, (Alex) DeBrincat, Raymond was unbelievable, Seider, the way he plays, even Simon taking a big step.”

Perron, one of the team’s most vocal leaders, said that the Wings “became more selfless” as the season progressed and the playoffs drew near. He saw it in guys blocking shots and accepting less ice time and generally “playing the right way,” which means defending first. He called Raymond an emerging leader, the way “he came through for us with so many big goals.” The 22-year-old had 14 goals in the final 18 games and a career-high 31 on the season.

The Wings never tightened up quite enough. They allowed too much easy offense even on their best nights and their goaltending wasn’t consistently good enough to make up for it. Their portrait was taken in the final four games when they scored five goals each night (including overtime/shootout) and had to scrap and claw for every point. It was rarely easy for this team, aside from a six-game surge in February that gave Detroit an eight-point lead on a playoff spot and probably raised expectations to unrealistic heights.

The Red Wings have holes to fill and questions to answer next season. The most glaring remains in the crease, where they finished with a sub-.900 save percentage. Sebastian Cossa, another first-round pick, is their best bet after a strong season in Grand Rapids. Kane and Perron could be gone, which would create two sizable voids up front. Shayne Gostisbehere, their leading scorer on the blue line and power play quarterback, will also be a free agent. It’s time for the youth to take over.

Five seasons ago, Yzerman’s first in charge in Detroit, the Red Wings played at a 45-point pace. They’ve improved to 70, 74, 80 and 91 each season since, with a core coming into place. They finished this season where most experts figured they would, flirting with a playoff spot. It was a full-on love affair by the end, which ended in heartbreak in Montreal.

“You try to harness this type of feeling to make sure you don’t go through it again,” said Kane.

There is hope in the hurt. Kane noted the incremental strides of the past few seasons and said “the next step would be making sure that you’re in the round of 16 at the end of the season and that we’re playing at the fun time of year.” Whether he’s here for it remains to be seen, and it’s not really Kane’s task to complete. It’s up to the players who were devastated Tuesday night to push the Red Wings further, fueled by the pain they just came to know.

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