PHILADELPHIA — Trevor Baptiste’s job is to win faceoffs. He’s very good at it. But on Saturday, after a game in which he was forced to play more defense than the Wings would prefer, he limped through the the tunnels of the Wells Fargo Center. Down the hall, assistant captain Dylan Evans strut toward the home locker room in navy blue suite. As a gametime scratch, Evans never got to ditch the formal attire for the white old-school uniforms the Wings donned for throwback night.
Elsewhere, Anthony Joaquim recovered from cramps. Chet Koneczny hadn’t been seen since Billy Hostrawser’s left hook and a five-minute major for fighting knocked him out in the second quarter. Zac Reid played hurt, and it showed when Toronto’s Tom Schreiber danced around him during a fourth-quarter comeback in which the Rock (5-1) erased three brilliant quarters from the Wings (0-6) for a 13-12 win.
“We were gassed,” Wings head coach/general manager Paul Day said. “We were totally gassed.”
Through three quarters, the Wings’ depleted defensive corps held off Toronto’s primary offensive trio of Schreiber, Rob Hellyer and Adam Jones. The Rock managed only six goals. But Philadelphia played with just seven defenseman for most of the second half, and not even all of them were at full-strength. Forward Kevin Crowley, who tallied an absurd 10 points with four goals and six assists, pitched in on the back end at times.
Then, at the onset of the final quarter, the weakened defense gave way. The Wings could not possess the ball. They crumbled under increased pressure and failed to push back with the same type of resistance. Thanks to two goals each from Schreiber and Hellyer and one more from Jay Thorimbert, a 10-6 Philadelphia lead ballooned into a 11-10 Wings deficit before half the period could pass. The Wings tied the game twice more but couldn’t match Hellyer’s game-winner with three minutes to go. Two questionable goalie interference decisions, both against them, didn’t help.
“It’s really easy to point the finger and say, ‘We’re an expansion team. We’re building. We’re growing,’” Baptiste said. “But I think, as you can see in all the games that we’ve played, we really don’t have much quit in us.”
In a vacuum, losing to a Toronto team that should contend for championship in a few months is not a disaster. The season is far from over. But the Wings are now a third of the way through their inaugural year without a win. Forget salvaging playoffs aspirations. Discard the fact that a win could’ve catapulted Philly into one of the more favorable portions of its schedule — home bouts with Rochester (2-3) and Colorado (1-4) before a home-and-home with New England (3-1) — with momentum.
Instead, the Wings are trying to right the wrongs that foiled them in close games thus far. So, earlier in the week, Day detailed the adjustments his team had to make to put something other than a zero in the win column. Of the seven forwards who see the floor, all seven had to score. The goaltending required consistency. And the power play, which had been 2-for-17 so far, needed to produce.
The main ingredient to everything was speed. The Wings changed the speed of practice, shootaround, and warmups to move with more pace and purpose. View the game through the lens of all four quarters, and it worked. Seven Wings scored. Doug Buchan played the entire game in net. In five power play chances, Philadelphia scored thrice.
“As horrible as this feels, we learned a lot this weekend,” Day said. “We are a better team than we were last week.”
The loss stung that badly because it wasted the fast start the Wings had desperately lacked in weeks prior. Matt Rambo set the pace one minute into the game, when he raced around his man on the right edge, launched himself across the crease and snuck the ball past Rock goalie Nick Rose. Josh Currier cleaned up a rebound. Kiel Matisz, on the Wings’ first power play of the night, found space to wind up atop Toronto’s compact defense. Vaughn Harris chipped in. By the first timeout, Philadelphia owned a four-goal lead, its largest yet of the season, with contributions from four different scorers.
The original onslaught subdued, but the Wings held their edge. When the Rock put together a run to bring itself within two, Blaze Riorden hustled to corral his own miss and push the lead back to three in the first half’s final minute.
The bulk of a five-minute high-sticking penalty on Rock forward Kieran McArdle gave Philadelphia an extra man and a chance to retain momentum after halftime. Matisz earned a hat-trick just before the power play expired. The teams twice traded goals. Crowley bounced in another, and the Wings took a 10-6 lead into the final quarter.
“I don’t think I got off to a great start shooting, but everyone else was putting the ball in the back of the goal,” Crowley said. “It’s easy to get assists when everyone else is scoring.”
When discussing the meltdown that came next, Crowley said the Wings have to learn how to win. Chemistry and accountability, he said, will come in time. But it’s time that has been the Wings’ greatest adversary so far. When the comebacks fell short, Kiel Matisz said this week, it felt like “we just need another 15 minute quarter.”
On Saturday, though, the Wings would have been better off with one fewer.