March 10, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Wings need to start playing with desperation

Jason Williams outraces Flames defenseman Jay Bouwmeester to a loose puck in the third period. (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)

It won't work this way, and the Red Wings have to know it, and have to fix it. It won't work with sloppiness and inconsistent effort. It won't work if their scorers don't score more. It won't work blowing third-period leads in key games.

The Wings are doing something they've almost never had to do. They're scrapping just to get into the playoffs, and while they're not familiar with that role, they'd better embrace it a bit more feverishly. And, uh, a bit more quickly.

How badly do they want it? The question will be asked almost every night now, almost every period. Calgary wanted it desperately Tuesday night and showed it, taking over in the third period and grabbing a 4-2 victory in a critical game (yes, in a strange, strange season, there's such a thing as a critical mid-March game.)

For two periods, it was a solid effort by the Wings. And then leading 2-1, they buckled again. The Flames scored twice in 91 seconds on Jimmy Howard, who couldn't be blamed for tough rebounds and bouncing pucks. But when the game was being decided, the Flames jumped on the tough rebounds and bouncing pucks, and outshot the Wings, 15-4, in the final period.

Sorry, it won't work this way, winning a couple of huge games against Nashville and Chicago, then exhaling and slipping a point behind Calgary for the final playoff spot in the West. Detroit cannot miss the playoffs, not in this town, not with its roster finally healthy. It doesn't have the bounty of skill it's possessed for years, but it has enough.

Desperate times

They need to show it more consistently, starting with their best players, as always. Pavel Datsyuk's top line has been increasingly productive, and fellow star Henrik Zetterberg must deliver more. And they need to show it right to the end of these tight games. After all these years, they should be used to the pressure, shouldn't they?

I'm sure they are. Now, it's time to get adjusted to the desperation.

"We were playing against a team that wants to get in the playoffs, and we need to show we want to get in as well," coach Mike Babcock said. "I just thought they won the battles, and there's no reason for that. Obviously, they had more energy and drive in the third period than we did."

It has been three months since the Wings posted even a modest three-game winning streak, and this was a significant blown opportunity. Crushing or season-altering? Nope. But they only have 16 games left, and it's clear this isn't going to get easy, and is going down to the very end.

No more sloshing around or waiting around. Injuries and excuses are last month's story.

The Wings have made the playoffs 18 straight seasons, an incredible streak that shouldn't end yet. And I don't think it will end. I still say, if they get in, as they should, they'll be better for having gone through all this, and will be one nasty seventh or eighth seed.

But gone are the days when the experienced Wings clamped down on opponents whenever they wished, or cranked up the offense whenever inspired. They struggled just to get the puck out of their end in the third period Tuesday night. Then, with a prime chance to tie it in the closing minutes on a power play (pulling the goalie gave them a two-man advantage), they couldn't generate much.

Losing late leads

It has been an odd season, and there's still absolutely no reason to write them off. But the late-game problems are a recurring scene, and you wonder if the cumulative effects of time and long playoff runs wear a team down.

"For whatever reason this year, we haven't been able to sustain the 'D' and play well with the lead," Lidstrom said. "I think we've kind of taken a step back (in third periods) instead of being on our toes and being more aggressive.

"I think we're a little bit hesitant and that's just inviting other teams to come after us even more."

It's an invitation other teams happily accept. Howard is not the issue; he has been fine. The Wings have too many savvy defensemen, from Lidstrom to Brian Rafalski to Brad Stuart to Niklas Kronwall, to be giving up leads. But we're heading into a stretch where spirit is just as important as savvy, and every bouncing puck matters.

The Wings must play like they fully recognize the danger, and the opportunity. And really, that's what this is, a rare opportunity for them to be that team that claws into the playoffs and then leaps on a favored foe.

Sure, it's an unseemly situation for such a successful group, getting pushed to the end of a tedious regular season. Doesn't' matter now. The clock is ticking, and no one gets to take any time off, or any period off, a fact the Wings better rapidly accept.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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