May 12, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Wings-Ducks series has been good to the last gasp

Henrik Zetterberg, left, Valtteri Filppula, and Johan Franzen, here playing with the puck at the end of practice, have been the calming veteran influence on a Red Wings team full of fledglings. (David Guralnick/Detroit News)

Anaheim, Cal. — Everyone knew things would be different, less predictable and more turbulent. The Red Wings rode the wave of youthful transition all season, so we shouldn't be surprised they engaged in a classically riveting first-round series with the Ducks.

Did the Wings and Ducks play seven games of aesthetically scintillating hockey? No. But they played one of the tightest series imaginable, more tightly contested than almost any the NHL has seen, with four of the first six games decided in overtime.

This stirred two thoughts before they met for a late-night Game 7. One is that the Wings made it through the toughest part of their transformation, with seven playoff rookies getting substantial time and mostly showing they belong. Somehow, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk haven't started aging while the kids have, and that bodes well for the future.

The other thought is, playoff hockey is so compelling, almost nothing can ruin it. Teams flying across the country three times in two weeks with no extra days off and no rest for the wickedly weary? It might have contributed to some slow starts, but it didn't prevent fantastic finishes, breath-taking in multiple ways.

Not even the NHL's typical scheduling nonsense, with Detroit fans enduring another spate of 10 p.m. face-offs -- incredibly, even Game 7 -- could dim the entertainment. Gary Bettman and the gang could order the teams to play in the dark with a glowing puck and it'd still be good.

Fight to the finish

For the first time in 22 consecutive playoff years for the Wings, this was clearly one of growth and adjustment. And maybe that explains why the series was so topsy-turvy, with the teams seizing and losing control more often than a rodeo rider. The Wings won three in overtime, despite blowing a 4-1 lead in one and a 3-1 lead in the other. The Ducks won in slightly more routine fashion.

The entire series seemed capable of shifting not just game to game, but period to period. If you wondered how inconsistent the Wings could look without the steady stick of the great Nicklas Lidstrom, now you know. You saw it all season before it turned the final week, when the Wings won four straight desperation games just to get in the playoffs.

"There's not a lot to choose between the teams, and when you get going in the wrong direction, one team takes over momentum-wise," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said before Game 7. "We're in a perfect situation for us. We feel we're getting better and more confident as it goes along."

After years of knowing almost exactly what you're getting from the Wings, it's a bit strange now. One night, rookie Gustav Nyquist is getting knocked around, and the next game he's scoring the overtime winner. One night, rookie Damien Brunner is committing a huge turnover, and the next game he's scoring the overtime winner.

One night, five youngsters are on the ice for the overtime winner, and the next game they're on the ice for the overtime loser. Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Jimmy Howard still do most of the heavy lifting, but if fans thought they'd have to wait for the remade Wings to be competitive again, they might reconsider. The Ducks posted the third-best record in the league, and while deeper than Detroit, they struggled to pull away.

'Live in the moment'

Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau has been in a lot of tight games, but never a series like this.

"You don't have time to let your mind wander, you're always looking at the other bench," Boudreau said. "You try to think three steps ahead, but it's difficult. You gotta live in the moment at the same time. I know at the end of these games, I'm pretty whipped. I'm having to do more thinking than I really want."

More thinking and more sweating. The Ducks were eager to get their Saku Koivu-led line back on the ice against the Datsyuk-Zetterberg-Justin Abdelkader line, which was possible Sunday night with the home team getting the last change. When freed from the defensive pressure, Datsyuk and Zetterberg were brilliant.

After being one of the oldest teams in the league for a long, long time, the Wings are leaning so much on youth, it's sometimes hard for fans to watch -- and hard to look away. Even the "veterans" are younger, such as Abdelkader, 26, and Brunner, who's actually 27. If Darren Helm, 26, ever stays healthy, the Wings would have a batch of rising skaters.

Defensemen Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl are still hit and miss and hit again, and rookie Joakim Andersson has been a decent third-line center. Growing pains lead to bouncing pucks, the most-plausible explanation yet for such a wacky series.

As the No. 2 seed, the Ducks carried more talent and more pressure, and both were noticeable. As the No. 7 seed, the Wings displayed more underdog scrappiness than ever, reflected in their overtime fearlessness. The Wings were 0-3 in playoff overtimes the previous three years, and won three in this series.

"It's been great to be part of this series, it's been pretty incredible," Abdelkader said. "To tell you the truth, I think our team thrived off it."

Wherever they go from here, the Wings are more comfortable with their direction now. Or at least they should be, once they catch their breaths.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

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