April 27, 2013 at 1:00 am

Gregg Krupa

'Fierce' Henrik Zetterberg leads Red Wings back to playoffs

Detroit — How fitting that the decisive moment of the season began with a big man on Henrik Zetterberg in a corner.

Just after 2:35 of the second period, with the score 0-0 Saturday in Dallas, 6-foot-3, 228-pound Brenden Dillon stepped into Zetterberg so hard behind the Stars' net that many players would have gone into the boards or down to the ice.

But the Wings' captain and leader-of-leaders is forever hard on the puck. He would do neither.

And, as is often the case with Zetterberg, he would not stop at that.

Regaining his balance, he did was he often does against the larger men of the NHL. He extended the puck away from his body, and from Dillon, folded at the waist and turned 270 degrees.

Dillon hoped to see Zetterberg out of synch, in front of him..

Instead, Zetterberg was behind him, in possession of the puck, headed to the net.

His pass toward Justin Abdelkader hit the other Stars' defenseman, Alex Goligoski, on the skate and bounced in.

Red Wings 1 Stars 0.

It was Zetterberg's eighth point since the week began with the Red Wings needing four consecutive victories to assure their 22nd consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Zetterberg's time to shine

For a 48-games season, Zetterberg led a rebuilding roster, riddled with injuries and supported with lots of youth, all with the knowledge that he might be the first Wings' captain to miss the playoffs since Steve Yzerman was 24 years old.

And so he would not stop at one goal, in Game 48. He would score the second Red Wings' goal and assist on the third, and when it was all on the line, every bit of it, Zetterberg's club beat the Stars 3-0.

When it is all on the line has been Zetterberg's time for the past seven seasons, in the playoffs. And, in this extraordinary Red Wings' season, the playoffs began Monday.

Now, they officially enter them this week. And they are the hot, scrappy team.

They finished the season winning four in a row for the first time all year — and they were absolutely-gotta-have-'em, must-have victories.

They have become the team they have feared through 20 Aprils past: The low seed that is tough to beat in the early rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But, mostly on this the last Sunday of the foreshortened 2013 NHL season, they are in the playoffs, and Zetterberg does not have to stand before a huddle of people with notebooks, microphones and cameras explaining how this was a good year for the Red Wings because they are in transition and lots of young guys got good experience and, surely, next season will be different.

Now, instead, he can stand before them and say, as he often does, "When you play hard, good things happen for you."

And his mates, young and old, know Zetterberg plays hard — especially this time of year.

He has been firing and missing a lot lately, and pucks were not going in, including on the opening shift Thursday against the Predators when the net before him was open as wide as Woodward and Zetterberg missed.

But there is no quit in him.

When it comes to players like Zetterberg, some near misses often mean he is simply on the verge. And so he broke out, in a big way, Saturday night, with the season on the line against the Stars.

'Fierce, fierce competitors'

Asked to compare him to Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom, Mike Babcock, who has coached all three Red Wings' captains, said, "I guess the things that jump to mind for me is fierce, fierce, fierce competitors."

The sort of guys who go into a corner with a big man and come out with the puck — and a goal.

But there is more, and it is important, too.

"He and I have a relationship where he doesn't mind getting mad at me and I don't mind getting mad at him," Babcock said. "I don't have any problem with that.

"He doesn't mind standing up for the guys and tell you what he thinks, and I think that's so important for us."

Zetterberg's mates think so, too.

Make no mistake, this coach rides rough. He is intense, and he can be coarse. And Zetterberg has let him know when it all might be just a bit too much, for several years now.

It seems both men know they do not always need to see eye-to-eye. But they also know they must win.

This is the Red Wings. This is the team Mike and Marian Ilitch own, and that some of the very best fans in the sport absolutely adore. And a season out of the playoffs after 21 consecutive in them would have been judged as failures for the coach and captain of the storied franchise.

Instead of blink, staring down the barrel, they won.

In his first season as captain, Zetterberg faced down a storm of situations that might have caused failure to lead them to what defines the beginning of success in hockey in Detroit — the playoffs.

Now, he will lead them some more.

"I think this is the situation, that you enjoy," Zetterberg said, before the game, on Fox Sports Detroit. "It's kind of like a Game 7: It's not often that you have this kind of thing, so you enjoy it.

"Just go out and play like normal and have fun out there and enjoy these kinds of games."

Thanks to their captain, there is more for this intrepid team in transition to enjoy.

gkrupa@detroitnews.com

Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg (40) scored two goals and assisted on a third Saturday night against the Stars. / Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
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