April 30, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Henrik Zetterberg's leadership fits hot Red Wings to a 'C'

Detroit -- It was just one play, just one goal in the regular-season finale, but it was more than that. It was the moment that defined the Red Wings' rush back to the playoffs, more fitting than fancy.

Henrik Zetterberg wanted the puck badly and went and got it, then was knocked to his knees and got it again. Seconds later, it was in the Stars net, a carom off a skate, a seemingly random act that really wasn't random at all.

The Red Wings went after this as if more than their streak was at stake. Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk went after it as hard as anyone, and therein lies the key to Detroit's chances as it enters the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive season, the first time as a No. 7 seed. The Red Wings open against the Ducks tonight only vaguely resembling the mistake-prone team that began the shortened season.

The Red Wings have been playing their best hockey for a couple of weeks, and now get to be the feisty upstart for a change, which has its good and bad points. The good is, they were able to tighten their defense in taut, playoff-like games. The bad is, they were forced to tighten their defense because they've struggled to score.

"Of all the years I've been here, it's by far the biggest growth we've ever had in one year by a team," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "We stayed positive, kept grinding, and our leaders kept believing and were very determined. They didn't let anyone off the hook, and that's why we're here. We're real proud of the group, and I think we can do some damage."

Following his lead

With all the injuries and young defensemen, nobody would've shrieked too loudly if the Red Wings finally missed the playoffs. That's the passive way to view it. The other way is, this was the ultimate test for Babcock, general manager Ken Holland, Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Jimmy Howard.

It was the perfect chance for the new captain to stamp his influence, and that's exactly what Zetterberg did. He has been a star for 10 seasons, and along with Datsyuk, forms one of the NHL's powerhouse tandems. But the "C" is revered here, from Steve Yzerman to Nicklas Lidstrom, and it's usually defined by this — when everything is teetering, the captain preaches calm and demands effort.

Zetterberg was incredible as the Red Wings won their final four games, capped by the 3-0 road victory over the Stars. It was scoreless late in the first period when Zetterberg outfought 230-pound defenseman Brenden Dillon for the puck and flipped it toward the net, a classic captain's moment.

"To win that battle against a man way bigger than him, it's amazing," Red Wings defenseman Kyle Quincey said. "When Z talks, you listen for sure, because he doesn't talk a lot. And when he plays like that, you can't help but play with more emotion. He basically was saying, 'Listen, this is what I'm doing, everyone get on my back and come with me.'"

The late-season roll was especially impressive because on a roster depleted by attrition and injury, much more was demanded of the top players. Zetterberg had 10 points and Datsyuk had eight in the final four games, as the Red Wings outscored the opposition 15-3.

This was the year Zetterberg, 32, and Datsyuk, 34, were asked to buy time while the youngsters developed.

Now the Wings have three effective defensemen making their NHL playoff debuts — Danny DeKeyser, Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl. The swift-skating DeKeyser, 23, has been an absolute revelation since arriving straight from Western Michigan, and in his 11 games, the Red Wings have allowed 14 goals.

Finishing strong

Leadership is revealed during times of strife, and Zetterberg is feistier than his understated demeanor suggests, more easily agitated than his predecessor, Lidstrom. He isn't reluctant to challenge anyone, on the ice or off.

Everyone knew this season would only be successful if Zetterberg, Datsyuk and others asserted themselves even more, and they have. Howard has been tremendous, and after two mistakes led to goals in a 3-2 loss at Calgary two weeks ago, he stood up and took responsibility. The next game, Detroit thoroughly outplayed Vancouver but fell in a shootout 2-1, and at that stage, it was out of the playoffs.

Zetterberg didn't stand on a stool and rail away, but that's where it had to turn, and it did.

"We all knew what was going on, and when we lost to Vancouver, that's where we got together and basically said we know what we have to do," Zetterberg said. "Of course we're proud of the (playoff) streak, but the way we played the last four games, that's what I'm most proud about."

Babcock juggled lines early, but recently went back to playing Zetterberg and Datsyuk with Justin Abdelkader, spurred by Johan Franzen's annual spring resurgence. Now, Datsyuk and Zetterberg will be asked to outduel Anaheim stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, a daunting task. Much also will be required of Howard, who could be the difference-maker.

But in the day-to-day grind, in setting the team's demeanor, the captain's impact is now cemented.

"I think Zetterberg's been determined the whole year, very, very impressive," Babcock said. "And Pavel and (Niklas) Kronwall and Howie and the Mule (Franzen) have really joined in that group. The biggest challenge for them is not having the supporting cast they did in the past. Without any question, we put an inordinate amount of pressure on those guys to deliver."

The Red Wings went through an entirely new experience this season, and head into an entirely different postseason. They got in because they didn't give in because their best players wouldn't let them.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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