SAN JOSE, Calif. – The Detroit Red Wings had this one coming. Coach Mike Babcock knew it. So did general manager Kenny Holland. Deep down, the players knew it, too.
Holland went on record before the season started predicting 70 of the Red Wings' 82 games would have the feel of a playoff game. He said that all but 12 would be the kind of games that could go either way.
Coming into Thursday night Detroit was 10-for-10 in terms of playing the kind of game that fit into Holland's 70-game category. Eight of the 10 were one-goal decisions, and the other two were by two goals only because they included empty-net scores.
"That's exactly what I expect for the first 20 games," Babcock said Thursday.
The Red Wings have not come to expect losing, not to mention losing by multiple goals. That was the case in a 4-2 loss at the high-flying Sharks, who are skating with a purpose and a lot of confidence under new head coach Todd McLellan.
A couple of things to remember, however. It's October. The Red Wings were playing the second night of back-to-backs and for the fifth time in seven nights.
Honestly, will anyone recall what happened on this night in March, April or May?
"I look at the New York Rangers and San Jose Sharks, the two teams in the National [Hockey] League playing the best," Babcock said. "[The Sharks have] got a helluva team, and they have for quite some time. But it's a journey; I know because I've been through it. Baby steps, keep on keepin' on."
The Red Wings did two things Thursday that they had not done since opening night or at all. For one, they failed to overcome a deficit and earn at least a point. Second, they got outshot. After Joe Pavelski boosted the hosts' lead to 4-1 a little more than six minutes into the final period, Detroit was facing a 32-16 disadvantage in shots. The Wings closed it to a 33-27 deficit by game's end.
In between the opener and Thursday night, however, Detroit put together quite the streak, and it's not like the team had played all that well, either.
Starting with a 3-2 win in Ottawa on Oct. 11 and ending Wednesday night with a 5-4 overtime loss at Anaheim, the Wings trailed during regulation of the nine games 10 times, and rallied at least to tie all 10 times. They did it while fighting through a period of taking penalties and having difficulty killing them off.
The bottom line, though, showed the defending Stanley Cup champs with a 7-0-2 record in those nine games.
"I guarantee you every team we've played was their biggest game of the year," Babcock said. "That means mentally you've got to be on all of the time. We haven't been. It is impossible. But in saying that, we've done a pretty good job."
Detroit started the year displaying its usual strong discipline, taking a total of just 19 minor penalties in its first five games combined. The next five games featured 38 minors and one major. The Wings took only four minors Thursday, marking the first time in six games they had taken fewer than seven in one game. That's impressive considering the Sharks had considerably more in their legs, especially after the first period, than Detroit, which appeared to have left its bags checked at the airport.
"You don't just turn it on," Babcock said. "We talk about that here all the time. There's no switch. It's very important to get started. There are some teams that they're not out [of the playoff chase], but I'll tell you what, [it's] ugly. You have to earn the right to feel good about yourself; no one gives that to you."
No one is talking about Stanley Cup hangovers in Detroit. It's assumed that, with basically the same All-Star roster returning and the addition of sniping forward Marian Hossa, the Wings will be an even tougher out come springtime than last postseason when no one could get in their way.
Hossa scored already his sixth goal as a member of the team Thursday, briefly giving the visitors a 1-0 lead early in the second period. He looks like a natural fit. But when's the last time a relocating high-profile star didn't look good in the winged wheel?
"I tell my kids that all the time, 'I'll help you any way I can but the work ethic comes from you,' " Babcock said. " 'If you do it, and you feel good about you, you've earned it.' That's the same thing in the National Hockey League, and it's new every year."
Detroit's trek away from the friendly confines of Joe Louis Arena continues on Saturday night in Vancouver. There, the Wings will lay it on the line for the fourth straight time on the road, the first time out of California where they met a shootout challenge in Los Angeles and won, faced an overtime battle in Anaheim and lost – earning a point – and came up empty in San Jose.
"It's always a work in progress," the coach said. "This trip is a great example of how much better it can make you if you just embrace it."
Babcock said he lives his life half-scared. He made similar mention during the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, even when his team had a commanding series lead over Dallas in the Western Conference finals. He said fear was a great motivation, that winning was as much a relief as something to rejoice.
"We didn't win last year because of our skill. We won because we worked hard," Babcock said.
The Red Wings still have a lot of work ahead of them, and they have a lot of time to accomplish it. For that fact alone, the rest of the league, too, has something to fear.