March 18, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Gregg Krupa

Coach hopeful despite Red Wings' inconsistency

Vancouver -- So, who are these guys?

Are the Red Wings the team that vanquished the powerful Canucks, 5-2 and 8-3 in two games this year, or the hockey club that had trouble getting out of its own way for two periods against the youthful Oilers?

Are they the team that skated around and through the Flames for two periods Wednesday, or the team that seemed intent on giving the puck to them in the third?

When they had winless streaks of five in February and three in March, did that signal their 21-year playoff streak is doomed? Or will they make the playoffs and be the team no one wants to play?

It is difficult to know, especially when injuries reshuffle the deck so much more for the Red Wings than others, and on an average day three points separate the third-place team and ninth or tenth in the conference.

'In the mud puddle'

"It is difficult for everybody except two teams," coach Mike Babcock said, referring to the Blackhawks and Ducks, who have separated from the 13 playoff contenders. We're, as Kenny Holland says, in the mud puddle. You know, we're a group that's kind of been in survival mode from the start. We've been hanging in there the best we can, and we're hopeful we can make a push, here."

What gives Babcock hope?

He believes his team is dedicated to daily improvement.

Valtteri Filppula is in full health for the first time all-season, and opponents say his speed is making him tough to play. Filppula scored two and assisted on a third in his three games back, in western Canada. He fired four shots in Calgary and is less bashful about sticking his nose into the traffic around the goal crease and mucking for pucks.

Johan Franzen returned from injury 10 games ago, and while he has only two goals and five points since, perhaps his three assists against the Oilers and Canucks and his strong play with Pavel Datsyuk and Justin Abdelkader on Saturday in Vancouver are signs that Mr. Streaky is about to break out.

Darren Helm might return over the next two weeks, despite some continuing tightness in his back in Canada last week.

And if Mikael Samuelsson and Todd Bertuzzi come back reasonably soon, with 19 games left, the Red Wings add a whole new third line to the team, the third line Holland and Babcock intended to have skating ever since Jan. 19, when the lockout ended.

It would also begin to trim some of the advanced minutes Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are racking up on the penalty kill, even as the return of Filppula and Franzen gave them some support on the power play — which suddenly works, even on the road.

Any athlete, certainly hockey players, will say injuries are not excuses. But they are facts.

And despite the load of road games the Red Wings must play between now and the end and the ridiculous flying back and forth across two countries and multiple time zones, a healthy club — for the first time all season — would be a much improved team.

Clearly, however, way too many fans have confused concern about the Red Wings' big transitional season with a team in descent, or even free-fall.

The concern, even the fretting, is understandable, because we love our hockey around here, and these Red Wings have been on quite a ride for a long, long time. And now, there is enough inconsistency to cause a bit of hair pulling.

It is especially understandable since the Red Wings occasionally cause themselves to tug a bit at their own hair.

We can probably expect some more inconsistency over the next 19 games, and with the distance from third to 10th measured with a micrometer, well, it could cause some excess stomach acid this early spring.

Babcock: No excuses

But, mostly, it feels as if the trajectory is generally up, despite the disappointments to come, this season.

"You can tell yourself a whole bunch of things this year," Babcock said. "You can talk about this schedule going on, you can say, 'Oh, we play all this hockey. We travel this far.'

"Every game, there's two points on the line, and if we're competitive and we're mentally in touch, the legs will be fine.

"The mind drives the body, anyway. It's got nothing to do with where you play or where you slept."

There was always going to be a year like this, barring huge signings of free agents, the year Nicklas Lidstrom retired. But when Brad Stuart and Brian Rafalski left at about the same time and there was a one-week training camp and no preseason and then a raft of injuries?

That is tough.

And they are sitting after game 29 of 48 with the fourth-most points in the Western Conference, a point behind the Blues.

That ain't bad.

If they make the playoffs, they might be the last team anyone wants to play. Just ask the Canucks.

"I've coached a lot of teams over the years, and when I was in Anaheim and then I came here, and this is a much different team than I've coached," Babcock said.

"But it's fun for the coaching staff. I think sometimes people think we're in the room crying. But we do a lot of laughing."

gregg.krupa@detriotnews.com

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The Wings, here with Justin Abdelkader on Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks, have had their ups and downs this season. / Rich Lam / Getty Images