May 17, 2013 at 4:56 pm

John Niyo

Red Wings' Mule is in need of a kick-start

Johan Franzen got hot down the stretch, with seven goals in the final eight games of the regular season as the Red Wings rallied to clinch a playoff berth. And he did have three goals — all on the power play — in the first round against Anaheim, tied for the team lead with Henrik Zetterberg. But that gives him four in his last three playoff series dating to 2011, and he’s a team-worst minus-7 this postseason. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)

Chicago Somebody better kick the Mule again.

And they'd better do it while the Red Wings are still alive and kicking because they're probably not going to be for long if they don't get something more out of Johan Franzen in the Western Conference semifinals against the Blackhawks.

The Red Wings mostly blamed Wednesday's 4-1 loss in Game 1 on tired legs. And I suppose that's fair, given what Detroit went through in a seven-game series against Anaheim just to get here.

But there was more than enough blame to go around after a tight-checking first period gave way to a spectator sport at the United Center, with the home team stealing the show.

"For some reason," Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said, "we ended up watching them play hockey instead of going after them."

The Blackhawks were one reason, of course. And the inexperience on the Red Wings blue line reared its ugly head again, too, as rookie Brendan Smith, among others, struggled to clear the defensive zone and make the simple plays that help make playoff life much, much easier, especially on the road.

But as Mike Babcock noted afterward, "We didn't put any pressure on them at all."

And that's where Franzen comes into the equation. He has to, in fact, if the Red Wings are going to make a series of this with the Blackhawks, the best team in the NHL during the regular season and the much better team in the series opener.

Franzen got hot down the stretch, with seven goals in the final eight games of the regular season as the Red Wings rallied to clinch a playoff berth. And he did have three goals — all on the power play — in the first round against Anaheim, tied for the team lead with Henrik Zetterberg. But that gives him four in his last three playoff series dating to 2011, and he's a team-worst minus-7 this postseason.

Disappearing act

Franzen was nicknamed "Mule" by Steve Yzerman back when the Red Wings roster had a few more thoroughbreds. And he's been this team's playoff X-factor almost ever since, at least since his breakout performance in 2007-08, the last time the Red Wings hoisted the Stanley Cup.

He's big, he's strong, he can skate and he boasts a terrific shot.

But at times he forgets to remind everyone about all that, and that's been the case on too many nights in April and May the last few years.

Wednesday's opener sure felt like another one of those, though Franzen was hardly alone in Detroit's disappointing disappearing act. Others certainly did less. It's just that Franzen's the most capable of much more.

Franzen began the game on Pavel Datsyuk's line with Justin Abdelkader, matched mostly by the Blackhawks line of Jonathan Toews, Brandon Saad and Marian Hossa, the goal-scorer the Red Wings opted not to sign in 2009 when they gave Franzen a big contract extension.

But by the start of the third period, Babcock was already shuffling things up, trying to find some offense, or even just a little more energy. He put Henrik Zetterberg back on the top line with Datsyuk and returned the Mule to his stable with Valtteri Filppula and Daniel Cleary.

Wanted: One Mule

Together, that trio finished the night with two shots on goal — Cleary's in the final minute of the first period and Franzen's late in the third with the Red Wings trailing 3-1. And they were seriously outplayed by the Blackhawks other scoring line of Michal Handzus, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp.

"I didn't think we were very good," Babcock said. "They skated better than us, one through four. It's not like we had one line dominate and then three let us down or anything like that. We were all the same."

With Franzen, it's generally the same plea from his coach, who earlier this spring slotted him at center for a bit just to light a fire under him. When he's stubbornly asserting himself, he can give the Red Wings another dangerous offensive threat, whether it's with Filppula or Datsyuk. When he's not, they're "kind of a one-line team," as Babcock put it a couple of weeks ago.

And that's not going to be nearly enough to keep pace with this Chicago team.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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