Wings goaltender Joey MacDonald hits the ice after stopping a shot from the Predators in the third period Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)
Detroit -- Soon, it will be March Madness, hockey-style. For the Red Wings right now, it's February Flatness, and it's an ugly, ugly sight.
A dangerous sight? Too early to go that far, but I'll say this: The Wings won't go very far playing like this, skating in aimless circles in a self-described embarrassing performance.
The Wings were blasted again by Nashville, 4-1, Wednesday night, and that's three losses in four games. Worse, it's three losses by a cumulative score of 10-1, including 7-1 to the Predators. Am I making you nervous yet?
If the playoffs were to start today, the Wings would be very nervous. According to my notes, the playoffs are still scheduled for April, so you can save your deepest anxiety until then. The Wings have been successful for years by not overreacting, but as their injuries heal, they can't overlook the recent misery, low-lighted by boos as this game ended.
They're not in trouble, not with the second-best record in the West. But they'll find themselves in trouble if they don't tighten up, and goalie Jimmy Howard doesn't loosen up, and somebody doesn't toughen up that defense.
"Playing like that is embarrassing," said Henrik Zetterberg, normally not prone to such proclamations. "It's not fun to play like this, getting booed off the ice. We know February is a tough month, it's a grind, but we gotta be better. We'll turn it around, I'm not worried about that. A little adversity is good sometimes."
Too many lapses
A little adversity is nasty sometimes. Mike Babcock looked like he swallowed a quart of hot bile after this one. He wouldn't pin it on Howard, whom he pulled in the second period, because there were so many lapses all over the ice, it's silly to single out one.
The Wings aren't clearing rebounds, aren't policing the front of the net, and sure are taking their sweet time getting started in games.
"It's absolutely unacceptable to compete like we did," Babcock said. "Obviously, we got tons of work to do. If we're not gonna work in games, we'll work in practice. We were awful."
How easy was it for the Predators? Their outstanding goalie, Pekka Rinne, stopped 34 shots but was so rarely tested, he wasn't one of the game's three stars.
These are the standards the Wings have set, high and hard to hit. They still lead the Predators by five points in the Central Division, but the points race is so jumbled, they don't have much room to coast.
They know it, too. No way can you go far in the playoffs ranked 19th in goals-against, with the defense flailing, with Howard near the bottom in most key categories. Howard must be better but this is not all his fault. It's never all the goalie's fault, even when people think it is.
"We're all in it together," Babcock said. "When they're shooting into an empty net, that's probably not anything to do with the goaltending. Obviously, we weren't prepared mentally to play and compete at a high enough level. The other team skated right through us time and time again. The coach isn't getting the job done and neither are 22 players."
The Wings have been battered by injury but they're getting healthier, with Tomas Holmstrom and Pavel Datsyuk back, and defenseman Brad Stuart due to return soon. The recovery of backup goalie Chris Osgood (hernia) also is very important, and he's out about another month.
Depth and reinforcements are pending, which could be huge, which is why no one's panicking and GM Ken Holland won't be scrambling at the trade deadline Feb. 28. The Wings don't have much salary-cap flexibility anyhow, and I'm not sure this group needs to be bailed out. It does need to shake the mid-winter doldrums and get more banging from its forwards, and more discipline from its defensemen.
As much as any sport, defense in hockey requires a mindset more than a skill set. It's so necessary because in this crazy game, even high-scoring teams endure the occasional 143-minute goal drought, as the Wings just did. They haven't won many 2-1 games lately, and that has to change.
Babcock wasn't even pleased last week when Johan Franzen scored five goals in a 7-5 victory at Ottawa. He sees those defensive numbers hovering high, and Howard's poor .906 save percentage certainly is part of it. But there wasn't much he could do on a couple of Nashville's wide-open goals.
Simple question: With 28 games left, can a team reverse a trend and suddenly become more suffocating?
"Sure, I don't know if you've heard of a team called the Green Bay Packers," Babcock said the other day. "Couldn't stop the run all year, and then could in the playoffs. I guess everything's possible. You like your team to play all 82 and be healthy every night and be a machine defensively. That hasn't been the case for us, so we have to get it fixed."
If not fixed fast, definitely fixed before the madness begins.
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