Dylan Larkin let go of the past. Now he’s propelling the Red Wings through the moment

TORONTO — Didn’t it have to be Dylan Larkin?

In a year in which the Detroit Red Wings captain’s importance has never been more clear — and on a day in which their season hung in the balance — of course it was Larkin, right there at the goal mouth, scoring an overtime game winner to give Detroit’s playoff push one more breath of life.

The 27-year-old dropped to a knee, then rose to his feet, and then left them entirely, jumping up and down as his teammates mobbed him.

Was it the best feeling he’s had after an NHL goal?

“It’s one of the biggest of my career,” Larkin said. “And I’m hoping this year to have some more big goals.”

The implication was clear.

The Red Wings are not yet in an Eastern Conference playoff spot, tied for the second wild card with the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers after Detroit’s 5-4 overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. But after Detroit had fumbled a 4-1 lead Saturday and entered the third period tied 4-4, there was a real chance their playoff race could have ended in Toronto. Wins by the Capitals and Flyers earlier in the day meant a regulation loss would have mathematically eliminated the Red Wings. Even an overtime loss would have put them in a tough spot with two games to play.

But with the win, the Red Wings are very much alive, even if they still need to hope for a Washington loss this week and to take care of their own business in two games against the Montreal Canadiens.

In the moments after the game, Larkin said he did not yet know what happened elsewhere in the league Saturday, but he knew the 2 points were “huge.” When told his team was now tied for the wild-card spot, he barely flinched.

“We need 4 (points),” Larkin said. “We’ve got Montreal, and man, that’s dangerous, the way they’ve been going. We’ve been in that position that they’re in, and it’s a whole different ballgame of what we’ve been playing, these playoff-style games. We need to show up and have our foot on the gas.”

And though Detroit has needed a village to get into this position, no one — save perhaps his linemate Lucas Raymond — has embodied that foot on the gas as thoroughly as Larkin for the Red Wings.

It’s not just about Saturday’s overtime winner, although with the goal, Larkin moved into a tie for second in franchise history with nine overtime goals. He’s tied with Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan and trails only Sergei Fedorov.

Those are some of the great names in franchise history, players whose legacies are defined by things that happened between April and June. Larkin hasn’t played many games in those months in his career. But Detroit is now as close to the postseason as it’s been since Larkin’s first season in 2016, and it’s only right that he’s having such a significant hand in it.

“Everything that guy has brought to our group,” Red Wings coach Derek Lalonde said, “his will, his mentality, the way he drives, the growth in him over the last two years as a leader … that’s a special player. That’s a special kid.”

Larkin, of course, has lived through some dark days with the Red Wings. He arrived in the twilight of a 25-year playoff streak, and he has spent the prime of his career on teams footing the bill for that success. In 2019-20, Detroit was the worst team in the NHL. The Red Wings have finished in the bottom 10 for seven straight years — with Larkin, as the captain, left on so many nights to answer for it.

That’s why it made sense earlier this season when he was asked about some of those past seasons and if he was making a point to elevate his game under the newfound stakes. But he didn’t bite.

“One thing I’ve worked on is to let go of the past,” Larkin said. “We’ve got a lot of new guys in this locker room, and it’s not the same group as 2018, 2019. And it’s not a ‘poor me’ thing. We’ve got a lot of guys that have worked extremely hard all season and sacrificed a lot. We’ve got good players in that room that want to write a new story. And I think that’s been my thought process all year.”

And it didn’t just come out of nowhere up at the podium.

“I talked to Newsy (Lalonde’s nickname) about it,” Larkin told The Athletic earlier this season. “He kind of, a little bit, called me out on it.”

At the 2023 trade deadline, Larkin was visibly emotional at the podium, choking back tears after Detroit had traded away his longtime linemate and friend Tyler Bertuzzi and another young core member in Filip Hronek. This came just days after Detroit had lost consecutive huge swing games to the Ottawa Senators, and Larkin had felt like the team was close in the playoff race. The timing of trading away good players, and good friends, stung him.

Lalonde said the talk was just “a five-minute conversation” that took place last summer, but it left an impression on Larkin coming into this season, one that seems to have shaped his outlook in what’s been a career year when healthy.

“The last 25 games last year, I kind of did feel sorry for myself and our team,” Larkin said in February. “And I think this year is a whole focus of just a new group, great group of guys, that we’re all pulling in the same direction. I think that’s something that we haven’t had in a long time, of everyone doing the right things to win hockey games.”

“I’ve really tried not to think about (the team’s recent history),” he added. “This season, it’s not about one guy. … It’s about all of us and writing a new story.”

That’s been an emphasis from Larkin in all kinds of moments this season. Even after the Red Wings squandered an 8-point playoff cushion while he was out with an injury in March and Larkin returned and scored twice in a crucial win over the New York Islanders, he tried to deflect the story away from himself. Saturday, coming off one of the biggest goals of his career, he began his media scrum by talking about James Reimer, who earned the win in goal for Detroit in his 500th career game.

Larkin, though, has been unmistakeable in his influence over the season. You can see that in the crude stats — his 67 points in 66 games, or Detroit’s 4-10 record without him — or in the subtler things.

Earlier this month, Lalonde recalled how he wasn’t using Larkin on the penalty kill early after his return from injury, but a run of losses had heightened the urgency ahead of a game in Florida.

“He came to me before the game, and he goes: ‘I know why you haven’t used me on the kill. This is too important now. Use me on the kill,’” Lalonde said. “And I had him in the top four (penalty killers) that game and (the) Tampa game, and he got us through. We got 3 points out of (those two games).”

Saturday, Larkin’s 3:47 on the penalty kill was second only to J.T. Compher among Red Wings forwards, including nearly all two minutes of a massive kill late in the third period with the score tied 4-4 and the NHL’s leading goal scorer, Auston Matthews, on the ice.

“He refused to come off on it,” Lalonde said.

Winning, of course, did require a group effort. It required two massive first-period goals from Alex DeBrincat, who had scored just once in all of March and April coming in. It took a goal from rookie defenseman Simon Edvinsson, his first of the season, and one from veteran David Perron. It took young forward Joe Veleno drawing the penalty that led to one of those DeBrincat goals on the power play. It took 32 saves from Reimer. And it took a whole team of defenders trying to keep Matthews and the dynamic Leafs forwards off the board in that third period, with Detroit’s season on the line.

But when the chips were down and Detroit needed a goal, it was still Larkin.

“He’s the leader of our team,” Veleno said. “He drives the bus for us.”

And after Saturday, that bus is still going, for at least another day.

(Photo of Dylan Larkin celebrating his winning goal with Patrick Kane: Nick Turchiaro / USA Today)

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