Red Wings’ season ends in heartbreak. What’s next may be even harder

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Red Wings’ season ends in heartbreak. What’s next may be even harder

The Detroit Red Wings did everything they could Tuesday. They pulled off another heart-pumping, buzzer-beating comeback 5-4 win against the Canadiens in their final game of the season.

It just wasn’t enough.

By the time Patrick Kane skated back to the Red Wings’ bench after scoring the shootout winner, Detroit’s fate was already sealed, in perhaps the most painful way possible.

Late in a 1-1 game between the Flyers and Capitals, Philadelphia, clinging to slim playoff hopes had pulled its goaltender while desperately chasing a regulation win. The Capitals scored to take a 2-1 lead and eventually won by that score.

Most excruciatingly, this all played out just moments after Detroit’s David Perron had wired a prayer of a point shot past Montreal’s Cayden Primeau with 3.3 seconds remaining — in just the latest miraculous moment for a Red Wings’ team that simply refused to quit.

Flyers coach John Tortorella told reporters after the game he did not know the result of the Detroit game until after the goalie pull. But once Perron scored and Detroit took its game to overtime, the Flyers were eliminated anyway. Washington’s goal on the empty net, however, sent the Capitals into the playoffs, and the Red Wings to a crushing end to their season, missing out on the postseason courtesy of the regulation wins tiebreaker.

“I didn’t really know fully (that the shootout wouldn’t ultimately matter),” Kane told reporters after the game, via the Bally Sports Detroit broadcast. “I think some of the other guys knew. But even at the end, it didn’t seem like there was much of a reaction coming off the bench. So I figured there wasn’t too much to celebrate.”

In time, the Red Wings will get enough distance from the way their season ended to find some real silver linings, including many from the last week. They fought relentlessly to the bitter end, mounting dramatic third-period comebacks in three of their final four games, and winning their last three. They saw their young, core players grow before their eyes, rising to moment after moment in the chase. They added 11 points to their 2022-23 total, going from 80 to 91. They had a chance at the playoffs until the season’s dying seconds.

They will also have to swallow some bitter pills, knowing that at the end of February, they held an 8-point playoff cushion, and ended up falling one point short. In March, they won just three out of 14 games, including two regulation losses to an Arizona team that will finish in the league’s basement. Picking up just one more point, in any one of their 41 losses this season, would have meant snapping a seven-year playoff drought.

All of it is part of this season’s story.

In the moments after the game, still in mourning over the outcome, a dejected captain Dylan Larkin lamented that there would be no more time with this group. He told reporters in Montreal: “I’m a fan of this team. I get to play on the team, but to see the future right in front of us, it’s pretty special, and I think this season was a statement that the organization’s back and heading in the right direction.”

There’s a lot to suggest he’s right. In Lucas Raymond, the Red Wings can confidently believe they have a young star and a big-game player. Moritz Seider and Simon Edvinsson are two pillars on the blue line. Larkin himself is a game-driver and a captain truly worthy of the title. There’s more, too.

But perhaps the toughest reality of this season’s ending is that the page now turns to what comes next. Because while the Red Wings can credibly point out, as coach Derek Lalonde routinely reminds reporters, that they surpassed expectations by getting to this point (I picked Detroit for 88 points this preseason), the expectations are only going up. And the next step forward will be even tougher.

As Larkin no doubt knew when talking about his group, there will be faces gone from the locker room next season. We won’t know precisely who for a matter of weeks, if not months, but some key players have expiring contracts.

Kane, the midseason addition who gave Detroit a star factor it hasn’t had in years, is set to become a free agent. Perron, who scored the tying goal Tuesday and whose leadership has had a substantial impact on the Red Wings on the whole, is too. So is Shayne Gostisbehere, who put up six points in Detroit’s last three games to (almost surely) finish as a top-15 scoring NHL defenseman. And Christian Fischer, whose emergence next to Michael Rasmussen and Andrew Copp helped Detroit find a true bottom-six identity line. And Daniel Sprong, who gave Detroit a down-lineup scorer who could make something out of nothing.

The salary cap will make it nearly impossible for them to bring back everyone — and even if it didn’t, they really can’t anyway. Because while this team made real progress, it still came up short in the end due to some real flaws.

While Detroit’s final late-season games showed tremendous resolve, they only needed to fight so hard because the Red Wings gave up four or more goals in each of their last four games — a problem that they may have outscored in these instances, but that reared its head all season. They will have to improve their defense, which will likely mean subtraction beyond simple attrition. They will likely need to take a long look at addressing their goaltending, too.

And even up front, where depth scoring became an early-season identity for Detroit, the tighter-checking style of the late season revealed that the Red Wings need to instill a heavier brand of offense — and much more responsible play overall — from their forwards, too.

They also have a stable of young prospects who, at some point, will need to be allowed to play and grow at the NHL level — even though that often means mistakes along the way.

Perhaps it’s too soon to be thinking about all that, in the wake of what was certainly the most entertaining Red Wings’ season in quite some time. It was a year that rocked Hockeytown out of a rebuild-induced slumber. And Larkin has a point when he called the year a statement that the organization is back.

As hard as the growth was from the basement to the bubble, though, the steps from the bubble upward will be harder.

So as this dizzying, thrilling, heartbreaking Red Wings season comes to a close, the only thing tougher than moving past Tuesday’s letdown is the task that now lies ahead of general manager Steve Yzerman: Not leaving next season up to chance.

(Photo: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)