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Red Wings want to be great, not just good

Blashill says Detroit must stay relentless to keep moving forward

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DETROIT -- The Detroit Red Wings were on a 6-2-1 run and on the verge of winning again, leading by two against the Colorado Avalanche at Little Caesars Arena on Sunday.

But they allowed a power-play goal with 6:15 left in the third period, a 6-on-5 goal with 46 seconds left in the third, and the winning goal in overtime. They lost 4-3 and let a point slip away. 

When they reconvened for practice Tuesday, coach Jeff Blashill told the players they had been OK against the Avalanche. The scoring chances had been almost even. The grade A chances had been even.

"OK's not good enough," Blashill said.

Not in the NHL. Not when you were in an 0-5-1 slump last month. Not when you fought back into third in the Atlantic Division, only to have several teams right behind you in the race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Not when you're trying to do more than just make the playoffs again.

Video: Lindsay talks about the Red Wings young talent

The Red Wings play the Edmonton Oilers at Little Caesars Arena on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; FS-D, SNW, NHL.TV).

"I think this league is relentless, and if you let up for a second, you will fall behind so fast you won't know what happened to you," Blashill said. "And so you better be relentless in your approach."

The Red Wings missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 1989-90, when some of their players hadn't been born. They had 79 points, 16 behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.

They had lots of injuries, subpar goaltending, a poor power play and several players who underachieved offensively. General manager Ken Holland felt if they could turn around those areas, they could compete for a playoff spot.

Holland was right.

A quarter of the way into this season, the Red Wings have been relatively healthy. Goaltender Jimmy Howard has a 2.34 goals-against average and .928 save percentage.

"When you're healthy, you feel good out there, and you're just playing," said Howard, who had a 2.10 goals-against-average and .927 save percentage, but missed 2 1/2 months with a sprained knee. "You're not worrying about anything else. You're not thinking about anything else. You're just going out there and doing your job."

Video: COL@DET: Howard stops multiple shots after turnover

The power play has gone from 27th to eighth, while the penalty kill has gone from 16th to sixth, entering Tuesday's games. 

Several players have rebounded offensively.

The Red Wings have emphasized speed. They don't want to set up behind the net and break out; they want to attack and put opponents on their heels. They don't want to dangle in the neutral zone; they want to get it deep, get in on the forecheck and spend more time in the offensive zone.

"We've got a lot of guys in this locker room that are skilled guys and fast guys, and sometimes when you start playing cute through the neutral zone and trying a little too much, I think that just hurts us in the long run," forward Gustav Nyquist said. "So as long as we take care of the puck through the neutral zone, I think we're a good team."

The best part?

While center Henrik Zetterberg has remained the leader as captain and continued to play at a high level, the young core has progressed.

Dylan Larkin, 21, leads the team in scoring with 20 points (four goals, 16 assists) in 21 games. He's plus-4. He had 32 points (17 goals, 15 assists) and was minus-28 in 80 games last season.

Instead of using his speed trying to beat opponents wide on the wing, he has played more of a give-and-go game, keeping opponents off balance and setting up more plays. By establishing himself as a two-way center, he has made the Red Wings stronger down the middle. They can go Larkin, Zetterberg, Frans Nielsen.

Video: BUF@DET: Larkin buries rebound to pad the lead

"I don't know teams that win that don't have really complete centers," Blashill said. "You see a team that's not winning, you probably got some centers that might have high-end skill but aren't complete."

Forward Anthony Mantha, 23, is second on the team in scoring with 19 points (10 goals, nine assists) in 21 games. Forward Andreas Athanasiou, 23, has eight points (five goals, three assists) in 11 games since agreeing a one-year contract as a restricted free agent Oct. 20.

They have to keep it up, not only for the Red Wings to make the playoffs this season, but for the Red Wings to develop into the kind of team that can win in the playoffs this season and beyond.

"You've just to keep taking those miniscule steps," Blashill said. "Our young guys are going to have to make sure they're every single -- every single -- day great. Maybe good. Never bad. That's a process for young guys. I think a lot of our veterans understand that and are good at that, but that's a process. If you're not every-day great, boy, you won't be great. You'll be OK."

And you know what OK is.

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