May 20, 2013 at 6:46 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Once-grizzled Wings proving youth is served in postseason

Defenseman Brendan Smith (2), celebrating with teammate Henrik Zetterberg, is part of a young nucleus for the Red Wings. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)

Detroit -- For a long time, the Red Wings supposedly were too old. The perception was, they guzzled Metamucil and were the only hockey team that lost teeth naturally.

Then for a while this season, they were too young. Games were giddy adventures, the puck was like a bouncing super ball and there were so many youngsters, you expected the locker room to be littered with empty juice boxes.

In between the hyperbolic extremes, the Wings are finding rejuvenation and balance, and a whole lot of energy. They come churning into Joe Louis Arena tonight brimming with possibilities that keep growing, and you can bet the crowd will be amped.

The Wings and Blackhawks are 1-1 after exchanging dominating performances in Chicago, and all of a sudden, the Wings' mix of veteran stars and youthful audacity doesn't seem mixed up. The Blackhawks surely will be feistier than they were in that 4-1 blasting on Saturday, and they're the top seed for many reasons.

But the Wings are embracing the new charge, as if striking from a fresh pack of matches. Mike Babcock said it's the most fun he's had in years. Henrik Zetterberg likes what the young players — six playoff rookies — bring to the ice, and occasionally is amused by what they add off the ice.

"Of course with all their speed, it makes you feel a little younger," Zetterberg said. "Then you see how young they are and how many years are between you and them, and you feel old again."

Several are 10 years younger than Zetterberg, Pavel Datysuk, Daniel Cleary and others, but the mentoring has its limits. Zetterberg said the kids went to see "Iron Man 3" on an off-day in Anaheim during the first round, and he politely declined.

"I think they have a little different taste in movies," Zetterberg, 32, said. "The good thing is, there's a lot of them, so they have something to talk about."

Playing loose

He laughed, and for a team that has spent 20 years skating with heavy expectations, there's a spirited looseness now. They still make their share of mistakes, but they make them enthusiastically and less frequently. Zetterberg is playing the role of calm, determined captain brilliantly, so smothering against Jonathan Toews in Game 2, the Blackhawks captain uncharacteristically whined about the officiating.

Zetterberg usually doesn't say much, but the young players listen and watch.

"The good thing is, they don't tell you what to do, they just kind of give you advice and let you do it on your own," Damien Brunner said. "They show you the way, so it's easy for us."

Brunner began the season on the top line with Zetterberg and Datsyuk, and it was overwhelming at times. Now he's on the all-rookie third line with Joakim Andersson, 24, and Gustav Nyquist, 23, and the development has been startling. Brunner has seven points in nine playoff games and is tied for the team lead in goals (four).

Defensemen Brendan Smith, 24, and Jakub Kindl, 26, also have grown, with Smith the fearless wild card. In Game 2, he jumped into the offensive zone and the Blackhawks burned him the other way, with Patrick Kane scoring. The next period, Smith jumped in again and took a terrific pass from Zetterberg to score the winner.

Zetterberg joked Smith "creates a lot of stuff, sometimes for both teams." That forgiving tone is paying off, as the young players establish roles and gain confidence.

"I think we keep the (veterans) on their feet a little bit," Smith said with a smile. "They kind of chirp that it's a different day and age where the younger guys have a bit more say, and they razz us about it. The game is getting a lot younger, and I think we've got a really good bond. We might make them feel a little younger because they're hanging out with us, and we love that. We're like sponges, taking everything in."

Fitting in

Smith sits at a locker next to 38-year-old Todd Bertuzzi, whose sharp mind offers more than his battered body these days. Cleary, 34, sits between Brunner and Andersson, and appreciates that they listen. Nyquist is the speedy skilled guy, Andersson is the studious playmaker and Brunner is the happy-go-lucky Swiss goal-scorer who's actually a bit older (27), although it's hard to tell sometimes.

"I really don't think (Brunner) has a clue what's going on," Jimmy Howard said with a chuckle. "I don't think he understands the realm of things and what can possibly happen as the playoffs unfold. He's in a good mood every single game. We got a lot of guys with a lot of energy, and you can just see the excitement on their faces."

The saying is, you don't know what you don't know, and maybe that's a hidden benefit. The Wings scrapped just to get in the playoffs, won Game 7 in Anaheim and have won three games in overtime.

For many years, Nicklas Lidstrom exhibited serene greatness on the blue line. Niklas Kronwall remains a steadying force but there's more rambunctiousness now. And did you ever think you'd hear people suggest the Wings' young legs can be a difference?

"It's the most fun I've had in coaching in a couple years, by far," Babcock said. "Just because we got an enthusiastic group, not that we didn't before. At the start of the year we weren't a good team, but we buckled down, got to work and got better."

From too old to too young to just about right. It's been a rocky ride for the Wings, and as skilled as the Blackhawks are, it could get rocky again. But as far as we know, Babcock hasn't once threatened to stop the car. The kids might not sit in the front seat, but they're in for the long ride now.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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