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

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DETROIT — Derek Lalonde hasn’t been sleeping much lately, for understandable reasons. As the Detroit Red Wings have skidded through an ugly March, the head coach hasn’t been able to rest easy, with his team desperately trying to end a seven-year playoff drought.

Normally, he’d have paid off some of his debt to the sandman Thursday, with a game-day afternoon nap. But on this day?

“I couldn’t sleep,” Lalonde said. “That’s the excitement I had, with just having Dylan (back), and the opportunity.”

After three brutal weeks without Dylan Larkin, the Red Wings captain finally made his return to the lineup Thursday. He had wanted to play Tuesday, Lalonde said, only to be held back by the team’s trainers. Even at Thursday’s morning skate, it wasn’t clear if Larkin would be cleared.

By the afternoon, they all got the word. Larkin was good to go — and not a moment too soon, as the Red Wings were getting set to host their biggest game in years, against a New York Islanders team close behind them in the Eastern Conference wild-card race.

Without Larkin, the Red Wings had looked like a shell of the team they had been with him, squandering an 8-point lead over their closest challenger for a wild-card spot and having to fight simply to stay in the race by the time he returned. There were some low moments. Even just two days earlier, after an overtime win against Columbus, Lalonde called out his roster for an uninspired start in a must-win game.

It was amazing, then, just how different the Red Wings looked with Larkin back. And how quickly he made his impact felt.

Late in the second period, with Detroit clinging to a 2-1 lead, Larkin worked himself wide open 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 obliged, roaring in celebration.

From that moment on, the Red Wings’ fate Thursday was not in doubt. Detroit beat the Islanders 6-3, and Larkin tacked on an empty-netter. He was named the game’s third star, which was accurate given how the game played out, and yet emotionally it may have been a bit of an understatement.

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

On any other night, Fischer and his line with Andrew Copp and Michael Rasmussen would have been the story of the game. They were outstanding, scoring three goals and helping to shut down the Islanders’ dangerous Bo Horvat line. Fischer himself had 3 points (a goal and two assists), and Copp had a pair of goals. Larkin raved about how that line can “turn the game” when they’re rolling, wearing down opponents by playing simple, effective hockey in the offensive zone. There was a reason why Copp and Fischer were chosen as the game’s top two stars. They deserved the honors.

“They look a lot of pride in getting the Horvat matchup tonight,” Lalonde said. “And they won it.”

It was impossible not to notice, though, that extra bit of boost every Red Wing seemed to have. And it wasn’t hard to guess the source.

“I think you see every guy just competing a little bit harder. Just having the presence of Larks back there, it’s huge for this group,” Fischer said. “Obviously, I think you saw it the last three weeks of us slipping a little bit. I think (his absence) played a factor into it. Obviously, emotionally, you’re missing your horse, and like I just said, it’s pretty easy to see once he’s back how much the guys want it and how much the guys care.”

That level of care doesn’t vanish with Larkin out, but the dynamic does change in a noticeable way for the Red Wings. They don’t have another player who can credibly take No. 1 center minutes and the offensive expectations that come with them. They can’t replace his speed, or the way he wins pucks to create offensive opportunities for his linemates.

“It’s unbelievable just the difference when everyone is slotted where they should be,” Lalonde said.

And then there’s the emotional side of having their captain back, especially considering Larkin came back with some fire. “A little too much pre-workout,” he joked. Not the least of those relieved to see Larkin back, of course, was Larkin.

“Just that feeling being back in the battle with the guys,” he said. “Just being there on the bench and able to contribute, but just watching everyone contribute and everyone playing as hard as they could, blocking shots, winning battles — it was exactly what kind of attitude we needed.”

Larkin, for his part, tried to direct the attention away from himself — an effort that was completely futile considering the circumstances, but not totally without merit in spirit. He pointed to players like Fischer, who arrived in Detroit just this summer but, like Larkin, is desperately fighting to get back to the playoffs after missing out in recent seasons in Arizona.

While it’s true that Red Wings lineup breaks down without Larkin, he knows the cast around him matters just as much. We’ve all seen the last seven years.

“Every guy has their own story,” Larkin said. “Our whole goal all year has been trying to write a story as a group and play for each other, and I’m really proud of the way this group has done that all season long.”

Thursday, though, one guy’s story was just a little more pressing — especially given what it did for that team goal that Larkin spoke of. With the win, the Red Wings put themselves 5 points up on the Islanders. New York isn’t their closest challenger for the East’s final wild-card spot — that would be the Capitals — but it helped to neutralize the extra game remaining the Islanders held, and put Detroit 3 points up on Washington (which has two games in hand) in the process.

It was a true swing game — one the Red Wings simply had to have, and the exact kind of game for which they needed Larkin.

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

After the last three weeks, it was harder to imagine that it wouldn’t.

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

(Photo of Dylan Larkin: Nic Antaya / Getty Images)

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