Red Wings observations: Alex DeBrincat scores, but Detroit falls in season opener

NEWARK, N.J. — For a moment, it looked as though the Detroit Red Wings might get an early affirmation on their offseason vision.

Detroit had come into New Jersey and gone toe-to-toe with a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for the better part of 50 minutes. Its marquee summer addition, Alex DeBrincat, had just scored a big-moment goal to tie the score at two midway through the third period. And it wasn’t merely a case of opportunism — if anything, the Red Wings had left goals on the table, coming out of a heavily tilted first period with the score still knotted at zero.

So after DeBrincat’s timely first goal as a Red Wing put them back level with the New Jersey Devils late in the game, responding to a pair of dazzling Jack Hughes goals, a season-opening win appeared to be there for the taking.

But the Red Wings couldn’t finish the job. David Perron took a costly slashing penalty less than two minutes after DeBerincat’s goal, continuing a path to the penalty box that proved to be Detroit’s undoing.

“We took way too many penalties,” Red Wings coach Derek Lalonde said. “And they were slashes, hooks — penalties you can manage and control. Definitely have to clean that up.”

It wasn’t so much that the Devils punished those penalties on the scoresheet — they converted on just one of the six power plays they were afforded Thursday night — but on a night when Detroit was able to generate some chances against a normally stingy Devils team, it disrupted the Red Wings just enough to neutralize that effect. And as Lalonde said, they were largely stick penalties and holds — controllable ones.

Two belonged to Perron, both on slashes, and two went to new addition Jeff Petry, who was twice called for holding. And though no single infraction proved game-defining, it was the sum of their impact that did in Detroit.

“You go on the road against anyone and take six (penalties), you have no chance,” Lalonde said. “Let alone one of the best teams in the league.”

Here’s what else stood out from Detroit’s 4-3 opening-night loss:

1. DeBrincat’s goal was exactly the kind of play the Red Wings brought him in to make. They were on a power play midway through the third period, on a night when nothing was going in for them. Their only goal to that point had been off Daniel Sprong’s body. They had hit multiple posts and whiffed on at least one grade-A look, and they had to contend with Devils goaltender Vitek Vanecek putting on a show in the New Jersey crease.

Red Wings teams of past seasons have struggled to find that have-to-have-it goal in those situations. Remember the game before Detroit’s infamous letdown in Ottawa last season when Detroit peppered 45 shots on Andrei Vasilevskiy and came up empty? Games like that are what DeBrincat was brought in for. And he delivered — it was one of just two shots on goal for him, but he made it count.

That has to be encouraging for Detroit to see in that situation. It won’t be the last time it needs it.

2. That being said, the following comment from Larkin was also interesting on the subject.

“We didn’t really capitalize on some really good chances in the first period and, really, all game,” he said. “We scored three, but our finishing wasn’t there, and I’m not worried about that. We’ve got a lot of goal scorers in here, and if we keep getting looks like that, we’re going to score a lot.”

That hasn’t necessarily been a prominent sentiment around this team in past seasons, but it is one of the results of the depth they’ve sought to assemble. DeBrincat isn’t the only player the Red Wings brought in this summer, and Klim Kostin and Daniel Sprong hit posts on shots that otherwise beat Vanecek clean in the first period. Andrew Copp, Robby Fabbri and Lucas Raymond had big-time chances they just couldn’t get to go in. It’s cliche, but the looks were there.

Of course, the Red Wings need some of those pucks to go in before they can feel good about anything, but the confidence with which Larkin spoke about the team’s scorers felt notable.

“I thought we played a good game,” he said. “I think if we play like that consistently, we’re going to be in a good spot.”

3. Though depth certainly looks like it needs to be the Red Wings’ path, it was impossible not to notice what swung this game for New Jersey: the Devils’ No. 1 pick, Hughes, who scored two pretty goals in the second period to put the brakes on Detroit’s upset bid.

The first was a below-the-goal-line bank shot off the rush that Ville Husso might want back, but it was also just a superstar play from a young star. And the second, beating Husso while cutting across the slot, was the kind of “easy offense” goal the Red Wings just don’t get much of. The star factor stood out.

And the Devils, by the way, have quite the depth to their lineup, too. They’re one of the toughest matchups Detroit will see all season, a team deep enough to play Ondrej Palat on its third line. In part by locking up young stars early (Hughes’ cap hit for the next seven seasons is just $8 million flat), the Devils have managed to keep their big guns surrounded by a strong supporting cast. It’s something Detroit would do well to remember as its top picks near their second contracts.

4. The penalties were the big talking point, but I’ll be curious to see whether Lalonde changes the blue-line look going into the home opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Olli Määttä sat out Thursday mainly due to his lack of a major special teams role, but he was one of Detroit’s steadiest defenders (and overall players) last season. You’d have to think the Red Wings want to get him in there soon.

For the first period Thursday, the Red Wings stifled the Devils’ touches and transition looks before they could become extended possessions, but New Jersey found its way in the second period and (in part due to the penalties) managed enough in the third to put the game away. Will that open the door for Määttä? The Petry–Ben Chiarot pair was physical, as expected — and which the Red Wings need — but the two holding penalties by Petry and a rocky set of possession and shot-quality numbers made it a tough Red Wings debut for the veteran. Detroit will want to lean on Petry this season, though, and the rotation in practices had been among Määttä, Holl and Shayne Gostisbehere, who is on Detroit’s first power-play unit. It’s shaping up to be an interesting decision this weekend.

5. Finally, one play that will get lost because of the result was Jake Walman drawing the penalty that led to DeBrincat’s tying goal. He made a defensive stop on Hughes, then held him down for a beat while getting up over the top of him, which visibly frustrated the young star into a slashing penalty. It was a small play that for a moment looked like it might have changed the course of the game.

Instead, Detroit heads home at 0-1.

(Photo: Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

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