TORONTO – The Centennial Classic began as a war of attrition. It ended as an all-out war between two forces buoyed by very different momentum. The Toronto Maple Leafs exploded for four breathtaking goals in Sunday's third period at Exhibition Stadium, flexing their young, exciting muscle, while the more experienced Wings gutted out an amazing comeback, scoring three goals in the final 6:06, including a heart stopper by Anthony Mantha with just two seconds to play.
We saw two powerful forces collide: youthful enthusiasm and desperation. The Leafs, the NHL's youngest team, blitzed the Wings with goals from Mitch Marner, Connor Brown and Auston Matthews, each of the highlight-reel variety, and the energy was palpable. The young Leaf forwards hopped enthusiastically on their skates. The stands shook with fans still struggling to comprehend what it's like to feel hope for such a historically star-crossed franchise.
The Red Wings weren't to be outdone, well aware they were battling an Atlantic Division rival and struggling to stay relevant in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. They ground out goals from Jonathan Ericsson, Dylan Larkin and Mantha, the latter two on scrambles, to force a tie. The Leafs wanted this game. The Wings needed this game. In the end, youth triumphed, with Matthews scoring in overtime to clinch a 5-4 Toronto victory.
And wasn't it the most "Detroit" ending imaginable? The team that has grown accustomed to life on the bubble, the team with 25 straight playoff berths, the team constantly hanging around the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, the team with no top-10 draft picks in the past 25 years…did just enough to earn a point while also not winning. Detroit's ability to float in painful purgatory is practically poetic right now.
Talking to various members of Detroit, representing three different generations, it seems the Wings don't quite know who they are anymore. Captain Henrik Zetterberg hails from the franchise's last decade of true dominance and seemingly can't shake that mentality. He speaks like someone confident his team will make the playoffs a 26th straight year – or he's unwilling to admit he feels otherwise. He said Sunday's game was determined by "five or six shifts," and he had a point there. Toronto's four-goal blitz in the third period started with a Leo Komarov goal at 1:23 and finished less than 11 minutes later after Marner, Brown and Matthews had scored. Zetterberg felt the Wings showed fight with their comeback.
"If we would've scored in overtime I probably would've said we played a complete game," Zetterberg said. "So there are little things that decide if it's a complete game and not a complete game."
In other words, "we didn't get the bounces." An appropriate sentiment for Zetterberg, 36 and someone who's seen nothing but success in a Red Wings uniform and has never really had to articulate what it's like to play for a team slipping out of the playoff picture.
Elsewhere in the Wings room: Mantha, 22, part of the newest Red Wing generation, who had two goals and three points Sunday. That gives him nine goals and 16 points in 22 games this season. He's realizing his potential as a high-end scorer, which attracted Detroit in the 2013 draft, where they selected him 20th overall out of the QMJHL. He's aware that, for this team to find any success in 2016-17, it will need its best young prospects to mature in a hurry. That includes Mantha and also Dylan Larkin, who has struggled to reach the heights of his rookie year and also scored Sunday.
“Obviously everyone is trying to be a leader in the room," Mantha said. "We’ve talked about it. Everyone needs to do a little bit more to be a better team, and all the guys know what they have to do.”
The most interesting man in the Wings room Sunday, however: Tomas Tatar, 26, who represents Detroit's "prime" generation, who has known nothing but the purgatory lifestyle since breaking in with the Wings full time in 2013-14. He didn't shy away from the notion this team needs to move backward to move forward. Sooner or later, everyone will have to face this idea in Hockeytown.
“It’s a such a hard topic," Tatar said. "We’ve been in a position like this since I got here. We’ve been battling for the playoffs every year. We always find our way. We’ve been in a bad spot and did it anyway. To make the playoffs in the NHL, teams like Boston, Pittsburgh, they all missed. Then they had great teams. It’s just so hard. You need to get on a roll and play good hockey all season. It’s tough to say if we’ll be smarter after the season about what would be good for us, but we’re in a spot now where we have to battle for each other and try to push for the playoffs.”
Tatar said the Red Wings simply lapsed a few times Sunday, completely "shutting down" mentally after getting scored on, causing goals against to yield more goals against. It's symptomatic of a team lacking focus, a team not quite sure who it is. It's clear talking to various generations of the Wings on Sunday that this isn't a united front. Completing a comeback win Sunday evening could've sent the message this team was poised to make another miraculous crusade to the post-season. Instead, Detroit's future is opaque. And as Tatar implied, we might not know what this team is until the off-season, when the front office must search for a clearer identity.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin