The night began with spotlights and segued into one highlight after another.
The Detroit Red Wings put on a pure Michigan party as they welcomed back their former coach by pouring on the goals. There were three from Justin Abdelkader and the first of his career for teenaged rookie Dylan Larkin as the Wings celebrated a 4-0 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs Friday at Joe Louis Arena in what was Jeff Blashill’s first game as an NHL head coach.
He savored the night all the more for how the outcome was achieved.
“I thought we played really good,” Blashill said. “The energy was great, the execution, attention to detail, was really good. It was a good step for our hockey team.”
It was Detroit’s season opener, and every player — including the injured Pavel Datsyuk, Danny DeKeyser and Darren Helm — went on the ice for introductions. Some of the biggest cheers came for DeKeyser and Larkin, who were introduced back-to-back because of their jersey numbers. Both are Detroit-area products; Abdelkader is from Muskegon and Blashill was born in Detroit and grew up in Sault Ste. Marie.
“I think it’s great for the fans,” Abdelkader said. “Good story lines. All of us connected to college hockey, which is big. I know when I first came to the team, being a Michigan-born player was kind of out of the norm. Now it is more norm. It is extra special.”
So was beating Mike Babcock. For all the downplaying players did about the night being about beating the Leafs, it turned out it did mean just a little bit more.
“It was a little extra special for all of us against Babs,” Abdelkader said. “It’s our old coach, right? Obviously there is pride. It felt good to win. Now it is just going to be the Toronto Maple Leafs, it is not going to be Toronto Maple Leafs and Babs.”
Babcock received a standing ovation when the Wings recognized him with a Jumbotron announcement during a time out in the first period — at which point his Leafs already were in a hole.
Tomas Tatar drew an early penalty; 11 seconds later Abdelkader tapped in Johan Franzen’s rebound for a 1-0 lead with the game barely a minute old. It was Franzen’s first game since Jan. 6, when he was leveled by his fourth head injury.
Seven minutes later, Abdelkader scored when he whipped a shot from the slot, after Larkin had played the puck from the boards.
It was Larkin’s NHL debut, an achievement reached just two months past his 19th birthday. He had so good a past year, and so good an exhibition season, the Wings decided to do what it took to make room for him in the lineup.
The reward was seeing Larkin erupt with joy when he scored 20 seconds into the second period. He took a pass from Henrik Zetterberg, flew up the left side, slid to the net and popped the puck to give Detroit a 3-0 lead. Larkin’s parents were in the stands, as were many friends. So, too, were several thousand fast fans of his.
Larkin was just as thrilled to help make it a fun night for his coach.
“I think it’s huge,” Larkin said. “I think it’s a credit to him as a person. Good things happen to good people. I’m happy for him and I think he’ll have a lot more to come.”
It was a good night for Zetterberg, too, as the captain celebrated his 35th birthday with a three-assist night. Jimmy Howard made a handful of good saves among 22 total.
“When your goalie plays like he does,” Blashill said, “and not give them any sniff at all, it keeps the game at bay for them and allows us to continue to try to build a lead, which we were able to do in the second.”
Abdelkader drew a sea of hats with his next move, as he snapped the puck behind James Reimer (who had replaced Jonathan Bernier at 3-0) by four minutes into the second period.
It was Abdelkader’s second career hat trick.
“First one, I saw it went off the post, I didn’t know if it went in or not but I saw it sitting it there, so I made sure to put it in,” Abdelkader said. “The second one, Larkin made some good plays on the boards and found me in front, and I turned and it got through a defenseman’s legs and beat the goalie. Third one, broken play, bouncing puck, ended up being a 2-on-1 – just found a way to get it by him.”
“It was a good win, we did a lot of good things. We can use it as a springboard as we go forward. It always feels good, opening night, to get a win.”
The Leafs dropped to 0-2; the Wings get to feel good going into Carolina, where they play Saturday night. It was one game, but as the coach for either side would say: Do enough little things right, and the result takes care of itself.
Red Wings forward Brad Richards, center, loses his helmet during a scrum in the second period of the Wings’ 4-0 win over the Maple Leafs Friday at Joe Louis Arena.