May 18, 2024

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Dylan Larkin's return sparks Red Wings: 'He means everything to this team'

Dylan Larkin's return sparks Red Wings: 'He means everything to this team'

DETROIT – Derek Lalonde hasn't been sleeping much lately, for understandable reasons. With the Detroit Red Wings going through an ugly run, the head coach has not been able to rest easy, as his team desperately tries to end a seven-year drought.

Normally, he would have paid off some of his debts to the sandman on Thursday, with an afternoon nap on game day. But on this day?

“I couldn't sleep,” Lalonde said. “That's the excitement I had, once Dylan came back and had the opportunity.”

After three rough weeks without Dylan Larkin, the Red Wings' captain finally returned to the lineup on Thursday. Lalonde said he wanted to play on Tuesday but the team's coaches prevented him from doing so. Even at Thursday's morning skate, it wasn't clear whether Larkin would be evacuated.

By the afternoon, they all got the word out. Larkin was ready to go — and it wasn't too soon, as the Red Wings prepared to host their biggest game in years, against the New York Islanders, a team well behind them in the Eastern Conference wild-card race.

Without Larkin, the Red Wings looked like the shell of a team they were with, squandering an 8-point lead over their closest competitor for a wild-card spot and simply having to fight to stay in the race by the time he was there. is back. There were some low moments. Even just two days ago, after an overtime win over Columbus, Lalonde called his roster to an uninspiring start in a must-win game.

It was surprising, then, how different the Red Wings were with Larkin back. And the speed of its effect.

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Late in the second half, with Detroit clinging to a 2-1 lead, Larkin opened himself wide in the slot, taking an Alex DeBrincat pass and ripping it past Ilya Sorokin. He motioned to the crowd to get up, and they gladly responded to him, chanting in celebration.

From that point on, the Red Wings' fate on Thursday was never in doubt. Detroit beats the Islanders 6-3, and Larkin hits an empty-net shot. He was named the third star in the game, which was accurate given how the game went, however emotionally it may have been an understatement.

“He means everything to this team,” Christian Fischer said.

On any other night, Fisher and his relationship with Andrew Cobb and Michael Rasmussen would have been the story of the match. They were impressive, scoring three goals and helping to shut down the Islanders' dangerous Bo Horvat streak. Fisher himself scored 3 points (goal and 2 assists), and Cobb had 2 goals. Larkin spoke passionately about how this line can “turn the game” when they roll, wearing down opponents with simple, effective hockey in the offensive zone. There was a reason Cobb and Fisher were chosen as the game's top two stars. They deserved the honor.

“They look very proud to get to play Horvat tonight,” Lalonde said. “And they won it.”

It was impossible not to notice that extra bit of boost that every redwing seemed to have. It was not difficult to guess the source.

“I think you see everyone competing a little bit harder. Just having the Larks out there, it's huge for this group,” Fisher said. “Obviously, I think you've seen that in the last three weeks that we've pulled back a little bit. I think (his absence) played a role in that. Obviously, emotionally, you miss your horse, and as I just said, it's very easy to see once he's back how much guys want him and how much they care about him.

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That level of care doesn't go away with Larkin's exit, but the dynamic changes in a noticeable way for the Red Wings. They don't have another player who can credibly deliver the No. 1 minutes and offensive expectations that come with them. They can't replace his speed, or the way he wins pucks to create offensive opportunities for his teammates.

“It's unbelievable what a difference it is when everyone is positioned where they should be,” Lalonde said.

Then there's the emotional aspect of their leader's return, especially considering Larkin is back with some force. “A little pre-workout,” he joked. The one who was least relieved to see Larkin back was, of course, Larkin.

“Just that feeling of being back in the fray with the guys,” he said. “Just being on the bench and being able to contribute, but just watching everyone contribute and everyone play as hard as they can, block shots, win battles — that was exactly the kind of attitude we needed.”

For his part, Larkin tried to deflect attention away from himself, an effort that was entirely futile given the circumstances, but not spiritually futile. He pointed to players like Fisher, who only arrived in Detroit this summer but, like Larkin, is fighting hard to get back to the playoffs after missing recent seasons in Arizona.

Although the Red Wings' lineup fell apart without Larkin, he knows the cast around him is just as important. We've all seen it the last seven years.

“Everyone has their own story,” Larkin said. “Our whole goal all year has been to try to write a story as a group and play for each other, and I'm really proud of how this group has done that all season long.”

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On Thursday, though, one player's story was more compelling — especially given what she did to the team goal Larkin talked about. With this victory, the Red team raised its score to 5 points against Al-Jazira. New York isn't their closest competitor for the final spot in the East — which would be the Capitals — but it helped neutralize the Islanders' remaining overtime game, putting Detroit up 3 points over Washington (which has two games in hand) in the process.

It was a real swing game — one the Red Wings had to have, and the exact type of game they needed Larkin for.

Late in the third period, after Larkin scored an empty-net goal, fans at Little Caesars Arena chanted Larkin's name, something he said he “never imagined would happen.”

After the past three weeks, it was hard to imagine that wouldn't happen.

“It was just a great win,” Larkin said. “And it's great to be a part of it.”

(Dylan Larkin Image: Nick Antaya/Getty Images)