February 11, 2013 at 5:26 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg keep Wings afloat through tough transition

Detroit -- The Red Wings looked done, spent, gassed. It was their third game in four days and the visitors were swarming, hitting, firing pucks for fun.

But this is the story of the Wings' grueling season in a tidy Sunday snapshot. They're determined to prove they're not done yet, not even close, and they're being led by the players who must do it.

This was goalie Jimmy Howard's day, as he saved the Wings in every way in a 3-2 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings. The Wings' third straight victory was high-profile thievery, and in a condensed season, stealing is important. But more impressive than what they're taking is what they're giving.

It ended on a Jonathan Ericsson slapper that dribbled between Los Angeles goalie Jonathan Quick's legs with 4.5 seconds left, as the Joe Louis Arena crowd erupted. But it began where it does more and more, with the relentless stars in charge — Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

The Wings are 7-4-1 precisely one-fourth through the 48-game schedule. They're in the middle of an ever-shifting playoff scramble, not a surprise for a team that has made the playoffs 21 consecutive times. But the questions before the season are starting to be answered, and in Nicklas Lidstrom's absence, there's no doubt who's setting the tone.

Sleepless streak

Zetterberg assisted on two more goals and has points in 10 of 12 games, and is second in the league with 18 points. Datsyuk scored and was terrific when every bead of energy was needed. The Wings faced Edmonton and Los Angeles less than 24 hours apart, while the Kings hadn't played since Thursday. Including a victory at St. Louis, Detroit outscored three talented opponents, 10-5.

No time for rest or excuses or barely any sleep. If the Wings plan to defy the latest predictions of their alleged demise, they have no time to waste. Howard put together back-to-back gut-check gems, and he wasn't the only one.

"I think you have to kind of trick your mind, because you're telling the legs to move and they're not moving," Zetterberg said. "You just have to battle out wins, and to do that, you need goaltending like we got. Howie was sensational. (The Kings) were physical, they came in wave after wave, and we couldn't really match it. But we stepped it up in the third."

Through two periods, the Kings outshot the Wings, 38-20, controlling play like the Wings once did. They tied it on a scramble in front of Howard with 52.8 seconds left, and if there's anything the tapped-out Wings wanted to avoid, it was overtime.

Ericsson rescued them from that, and players aren't the only ones thankful for a moment's rest these days. Even the potty breaks seem to come around quicker.

"One of the linesmen was thanking me after I scored," Ericsson said with a smile. "He said, 'I had to pee and I wouldn't have lasted through overtime.'"

This NHL season is about survival instinct, and the Wings still possess it in deep supply. It helps to have youngsters contribute, such as talented rookie Damien Brunner. And it helps to have a center as tough and skilled as Datsyuk, and a captain as composed as Zetterberg.

Dynamic duo

One of the best tandems in the league for years, Datsyuk and Zetterberg figured they'd have to deliver even more this season. So far they are. They play in every situation, log the most minutes of any forwards on the team, and can't be rattled. About a minute after the Kings' Drew Doughty clobbered Datsyuk and knocked his helmet off, the Wings' 34-year-old star sliced through the defense and scored the first goal.

"When you watch Pavel Datsyuk play, you talk about how skilled he is," coach Mike Babcock said. "When I watch him play, all I think about is how much will he has, how determined he is. And when I see Zetterberg, he's the Energizer bunny, he just keeps coming. The best of the best are ultra-competitive and bring it every single day. Those guys are our best players, and they drive our bus."

Zetterberg and Datsyuk have played together for a decade, but they really became the Wings' leading twosome after Lidstrom's retirement. This is their team now, and if they pull the Wings through this difficult transition and into another postseason run, they'll carve a lofty spot in Detroit's sports duo lore.

That's for later. For now, Zetterberg was just looking forward to a day off, while Babcock was marveling at how his team navigated a brutal stretch.

"Howie gave us an opportunity to hang in there and gut it out," Babcock said. "If you look at our captains, and (Niklas) Kronwall is one of them, and Howie too, they're work-ethic people. You don't have to beg them to play. Do they have it every day? No. But they bring it every day."

With injuries and fatigue, this season will be attrition by subtraction for most teams. In a test of endurance, the Wings might not be so deep and dominant anymore, but as long as their best show the way, they're certainly not done.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Pavel Datsyuk, of the Red Wings, second from right, fights L.A.'s Simon Gagne for the puck in the first period Sunday at Joe Louis Arena. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
A scrum erupts around Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard after a second-period ... (David Guralnick/Detroit News)
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