Red Wings feel the heat to extend the streak
Twenty-one straight seasons without missing the playoffs in jeopardy
Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock rallies his troops during a break in their NHL game against the host Phoenix Coyotes on April 4, 2013. ‘What 21 years in the playoffs means is, it’s a sign of greatness over a period of time. If you’re Henrik Zetterberg and it’s your first year as captain, you don’t want (missing the playoffs) on your watch. If you’re Mike Babcock in your eighth year of coaching the team, you don’t want it on your watch,’ he said Friday.
Photograph by: Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press
VANCOUVER — The Detroit Red Wings’ coaches, Mike Babcock said, went to Whistler on a rare day off Thursday and rode the Peak-to-Peak gondola. But they couldn’t see the scenery beneath them, for all the fog.
Probably just as well.
Don’t Look Down might be their theme song right now.
Two points outside the playoff bubble with five games remaining is such foreign territory for the nearest thing the NHL has had to a dynasty in the salary-cap/parity era, it’s almost impossible to fathom. But for the first time since the 1989-90 season, the Wings are in danger of watching the playoffs — more likely, not watching them — on TV.
“Mike,” a reporter ventured, when the Wings practised Friday at Rogers Arena in preparation for Saturday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks, “your team has gone 20 seasons without missing the playoffs ...”
“21,” Babcock corrected him.
But who’s counting, right?
Don’t kid yourself: they all are. And they all feel the pressure to keep the string alive.
“Have I ever been asked that by a reporter?” Babcock said, chuckling.
“It’s kind of like when I put up the schedule today for the players, and we put up everyone’s (standings), they probably sat there and thought: ‘I wonder if he knows we can read, too?’
“What 21 years in the playoffs means is, it’s a sign of greatness over a period of time. If you’re Henrik Zetterberg and it’s your first year as captain, you don’t want (missing the playoffs) on your watch. If you’re Mike Babcock in your eighth year of coaching the team, you don’t want it on your watch. If you’re any one of these players that has any stake in the Red Wings, especially the ones who’ve put in a ton of time, they don’t want it on their watch, either.
“Bottom line to me, though, is that all that is just fluff that’s in the way. We got a game tomorrow, let’s play it.”
There is no major mystery as to how the streak has come to be endangered. It can be summed up in two words: Nick Lidstrom. Or if not two, then four: Nick Lidstrom, Brad Stuart. One retired, one traded to San Jose.
Not merely two top-three defencemen gone, but in Lidstrom, the greatest D-man since Bobby Orr, the modern era’s most reliable security blanket. And as much as the Wings’ players and coaches have tried to ignore the void he left, it is evident each time they tee it up.
“I think everyone in here knew how much we were going to miss him, but I think now people outside the team realize even more how good he was,” said Niklas Kronwall, who succeeded to the role of designated blue-line stud with the departure of Lidstrom.
“And what he did on a daily basis was ... I shouldn’t say impossible, because he did it, but pretty darn close. I’ve never seen anything like him. He just made everything look so simple out there. Regardless of the play, he would solve the situation without hesitating. For him it was just the way to do it.
“How can you not (miss that)? He’s just supposed to be there, and all of a sudden he’s not. But we’ve been trying to get the job done together, with everybody in the lineup. Obviously it’s not the same without him, but we’ve been working really hard on it. It’s a process, and we’re learning every game.”
And it’s not as though they’ve been poor defensively. Their goals against — 110 — is right in line with most of the teams (other than Chicago) ahead of them in the standings, and better than some.
They just haven’t scored enough goals.
“Well, we’re missing a full line, a good line,” said Danny Cleary, one of the few Wings to have played all 43 games. “I went into the season knowing there was going to be a lot of injuries, but you hope they will be short ones, a couple of weeks, a month tops. I didn’t know we were going to lose Darren Helm for the whole season, or Bert (Todd Bertuzzi) or (Mikael) Samuelsson. I think we have the most man-games lost in the league.
“I think we were very lucky to have Pav (Datsyuk) and Zee (Zetterberg) play real well for us until everybody else caught up a little bit. And our goalies have played well, defence is getting better all the time ... but here we are, battling for position.”
It still feels odd, even though they’ve had plenty of time to realize what a dogfight they’d be in.
“We’ve always been jockeying for first or second in the conference. It sucks being in this position,” Cleary said, “but our theory is: nobody feels sorry for us. No one gives a crap, they’re probably pretty happy to see Detroit not having success.”
His friends around the league have basically said: “See how the other half lives, for a change.”
“But the thing is, we can control it,” Cleary said. “If you don’t think that all you’ve got to do is get in to have a chance, you’re crazy. You get in, either conference, you got a real legitimate chance. But we need to start getting on an upswing now. We’ve got great components on the team. We want to keep it going, and here we are, five games to get it done. It’s right in front us. We’ve just got to embrace it.”
Babcock isn’t into living in the past. Like all coaches, he has no time to waste on the injured and the departed.
“I guess the way I look at it is, you get to choose your attitude every day of your life,” he said, brushing off a question about how big a sales job he’s had to do, to convince his players that they are good enough without all those missing pieces.
“I don’t know anything about that, and I don’t think like that, either,” said Canada’s Olympic gold-medal winning coach. “We had an off-day yesterday, a practice day today, gonna have a nice meal now, and we’re going to get up tomorrow and skate, and have another nice meal, and then we’re going to lay ’er on the line.
“And the next day we’re going to get up and choose our attitude again. To me, the league’s real simple: you win today, everything’s OK.”
There’s just one piece of the past he doesn’t mind bringing up.
“The year of the Olympics, we had to go 16-2-3 or something like that to get in, and we’d been hurt all year,” he said. “This is a different group. It’s been a real grind for us, we’re not a big scoring team, so we can’t outscore our mistakes.”
It’s different, all right. Reporters who have been around this team a lot over the past couple of decades look at the names on the lockers and think, “Who are these guys?”
Well, they’re what’s left of the Detroit Red Wings.
And the streak’s not over yet.
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun