Beaten up and worn-out, the Red Wings are fighting to make the playoffs, where they might still be a formidable force
This is an article from the March 15, 2010 issue
For 20 minutes on a springlike Sunday, the Detroit Red Wings looked suspiciously like, well, the Detroit Red Wings. They found acres of open ice. They moved the puck with practiced deftness. They looked like, as smiling winger Johan Franzen put it, "ballerinas," albeit ballerinas with really bad attitudes. They pumped four pucks past flummoxed Chicago Blackhawks goalie Cristobal Huet in a span of six minutes and 15 seconds and completed the second-period onslaught with 2.7 seconds left when Pavel Datsyuk slid a breakaway backhander between the pad's of Huet's replacement, Antti Niemi.
"We know we can play that way," captain Nicklas Lidstrom would say later. "That's the way we have to play the majority of the games we have left to make the playoffs. We proved to ourselves we can play [at] that high level and play with the best teams in the league."
Seventeen games remained. And when the sun rose the next morning, Detroit, which had rallied from a two-goal deficit for a frantic 5--4 win, stood eighth in the Western Conference, one point ahead of Calgary for the final playoff spot.
Before a standing-room-only crowd of 22,309 in Chicago and an NBC audience, the Red Wings had given the NHL a glimpse of their fabulous past.
Had they also revealed the future?
Until Sunday, Mike Babcock's necktie probably was doing better than his team. The crimson tie he wore behind the Canadian bench at the Olympic final has its own Facebook page: Mike Babcock's McGill Tie. (It had 1,829 fans as of Sunday.) The McGill University bookstore usually sells two of the ties per month, but all 90 in stock were snapped up within 48 hours of Canada's overtime victory against Team USA. Babcock says he would consider donating his alma mater's newly fashionable neckwear, with its stripes and school crests, to the Hockey Hall of Fame if it inquired, but he officially has retired that particular one.
He had knotted the McGill tie with what appeared to be a half-Windsor. The Red Wings are more of a Gordian knot.
Sometimes the problems seem perplexing for a team that has qualified for 18 straight playoffs, the longest active streak in North American pro sports. (In the past 17 Detroit has been the higher seed in their first-round series.) Now its prospects teeter, its bravado shrivels. The Wings awaken every morning and check the standings, not the melting snow that presages another promising spring. Says defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, himself a ghastly -17: "The confidence we had when we just knew we were going to win even though we didn't play that good ... I don't think that feeling is that strong anymore." Detroit, which has won at least 50 games every season since the 2004--05 lockout but no more than two straight since December, is a bubble team threatening to burst.
Babcock is nettled. It is March 4, 14 hours after the Red Wings had been thumped 6--3 at home by Vancouver—and a day before the start of a two-game run with wins over Nashville and the Blackhawks—and he is underwhelmed with his team at practice. His gravelly baritone echoes through Joe Louis Arena as the Wings work on entering the offensive zone. During one drill defenseman Derek Meech is offsides by two feet. "Meechie," Babcock yells, "no need to be offsides." No overt anger. No sarcasm. Like Detroit's predicament, just fact.
There is overwhelming sentiment that the Wings will make the playoffs—"Genetic memory plus fantastic players," Nashville coach Barry Trotz says—but Babcock broods. "Lots of people on the outside keep saying, 'You'll be fine,'" he says. "But when you're in it, you know [what you're up against]."
In his office Babcock glances over at a whiteboard on the wall that has the numbers of his players. Finally this is his team, the one general manager Ken Holland envisioned before a hellacious raft of injuries. Six key players missed about 10% of the season or more: Franzen (55 games, ACL), Niklas Kronwall (30 games, sprained knee), Valtteri Filppula (26 games, broken wrist), Tomas Holmstrom (13 games, broken foot), Dan Cleary (12 games, separated shoulder) and Henrik Zetterberg (eight games, separated shoulder).
"That's had something to do with our rut, but the reality is we've got to be more Red Wing--like," Babcock says. "What Red Wings do is out-will you, bring it every night. And that means you can't come to the rink hoping, you come to the rink knowing. We've been inconsistent enough that we come to the rink hoping."
The Olympics often exact a toll on NHL rosters sprinkled with players—Detroit sent seven—who represent their countries, but the Games might actually have been a blessing for some of the Swede-heavy Wings. The tournament served as a glorified training camp for Kronwall, who played just six of 10 games before the Olympic break, and Franzen, who played only the last three.
Certainly Babcock successfully toggled between the Red Wings and Team Canada. Forty minutes after a joyous host nation erupted, Babcock was asked jokingly, "Who's in goal tomorrow in Colorado?" The coach replied, "Jimmy Howard. And I know my lines. I know who pays my salary." Babcock says he returned to Detroit a better coach for having been around his Olympic assistants, including Jacques Lemaire, whose penalty-killing system—a four-man box that aggressively challenges attempted entries into the zone—Babcock appropriated after working with the Devils' coach at Canada's orientation camp last August.
While Olympic demands can't explain why the Wings haven't skated rings around the NHL, these reasons might:
• Hockey-ed Out. In the previous three seasons Detroit has been in 11 of 12 possible playoff series, which translates to 309 regular-season and playoff games. High intensity. Short summers. Pittsburgh has played only 14 fewer matches, but its core (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Sergei Gonchar and Marc-André Fleury) averages 25 years old. The cornerstone Wings (Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Brian Rafalski and Franzen) are an average of 33. "With the long seasons and the compressed schedule this year, it's almost the perfect storm," says goaltender Chris Osgood. "It's almost four seasons in three for us. This year the schedule's so condensed, I think we've had trouble finding our mojo, our consistency, to stay at that high level for a long period of time."
• Revenge of the Salary Cap. After finessing the cap with long-term contracts—Zetterberg's 12-year deal pays him until an age when he will crave supper at five o'clock—the Red Wings have been squeezed like an actress into an Oscars gown. They couldn't afford to retain Marian Hossa, who skipped to the Blackhawks in July 2009 for $62.8 million over 12 years. Jiri Hudler, a small but nifty forward who had a keen grasp of Detroit's puck-possession style, also bolted last summer for Dynamo Moscow. "Five years into a cap world, we have a system designed for parity," Holland says. "And all 30 teams are going to be hit with the same thing. It'll happen to [Cup contenders such as] Washington and Chicago. You can crunch numbers, do creative contracts, but you can't beat the system."
• Datsyuk and Zetterberg. The Butch and Sundance of two-way hockey haven't produced offensively. After a 97-point, Hart Trophy--caliber season, Datsyuk has 55 points and a .87 points-per-game average, substantially below his 1.16 of the past four. Zetterberg has 18 goals after averaging 36.5 post-lockout. Detroit is one of just three teams without a 20-goal scorer.
The stagnant offense has turned the Wings into something they weren't even when Mike Vernon, Osgood and Dominik Hasek were backstopping them to four Stanley Cups in 11 seasons: a goaltender team. The goalie isn't Osgood, now four wins shy of 400, but Howard, a 25-year-old rookie. Howard stumbled early in the season, literally. In an October game in Edmonton he staggered across the crease on one play, looking less like an NHL goalie than a barfly. Following that 6--5 shootout loss to the Oilers, Howard brazenly told Holland, a former goalie, "I'm really close to figuring this thing out." "I was," Howard says now. "I had to figure out that I was quick enough side to side, that I didn't have to overpush." Howard, who has a .924 save percentage and 23 wins since Nov. 11, says he is humbled just being around such accomplished teammates, who in turn owe him a debt of gratitude for helping save their season. Says Holland, "Up to the Olympic break, he's probably been our MVP."
There is still time for them to be Red Wing--like for a full 60 minutes. If the hockey world did indeed see the real Detroit during that second period on Sunday and that team makes the tournament, look out. These playoffs will be wide-open. Many of the leading contenders have potential flaws, either between the pipes (Washington, Chicago) or between the ears (San Jose).
"You could be looking at [somebody's worst playoff nightmare]," Nashville winger Steve Sullivan says of the Red Wings. "They've got a dressing room full of champions. But you notice the change. Playing against Lidstrom or Rafalski for so many years, you felt like you were always chasing your tail. You wouldn't get a shot, and you'd sweated five pounds' worth. But now you sometimes see some holes in [Detroit's] game that you wouldn't before."
Apparently nothing is forever ... even if the Red Wings have made it seem that way.
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