May 29, 2013 at 3:27 pm

Bob Wojnowski

As kids grow, it's up to the veterans to make Wings go

Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard is playoff-tested, as are several of the teams leaders. This is when the Red Wings will need them most. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)

Detroit -- The kids can only get you so far. The Red Wings are here, at the corner of destiny and disappointment, because they've grown up quickly, learning on the fly. Youthful precociousness pushed them to this point, but to take the next huge step, they need veteran precision.

It's hard to tell if the Red Wings are rattled or riled, but it's easy to see the enormity of the task. They have to go into the United Center tonight and try to win a Game 7 against the league's top team, a deep, skilled Blackhawks group that's starting to churn.

The Red Wings have done this before, although not exactly this. They won Game 7 on the road over the Ducks, 3-2, two weeks ago. In fact, they've played their last four Game 7s on the road and won three. Now they're back where this series started — from heavy underdogs to favorites to heavy underdogs.

But this is playoff hockey, where one bounce, one rush, one mistake could decide it, and the odds never are as daunting as they appear. Yes, the Red Wings have a chance tonight because for all their youth, they have a stable of experienced players still capable of showing the way. It starts with captain Henrik Zetterberg, who began the process of settling the Wings down shortly after they wobbled badly in the third period of Game 6 and lost, 4-3.

"What happened, happened, and it's not that hard to just flush it out," Zetterberg said. "We've been here before, and we know what it's about."

Pavel Datsyuk has been here, and so have Jimmy Howard, Johan Franzen, Daniel Cleary and Valtteri Filppula. Niklas Kronwall has been here, and so has Jonathan Ericsson.

The youngsters haven't been here long, and they've made their share of mistakes. Defenseman Brendan Smith is the ultimate feast-or-frighten guy, and while the Red Wings need him to join the rush, he has to be much more responsible defensively. But it makes no sense to pin the blame on the rookies, even if some of it is true. After all, two of the Game 6 goal-scorers were rookies Damien Brunner and Joakim Andersson, and Brunner leads the team with five goals in the playoffs.

They don't have the experience to draw on, which is why it goes back to the older guys to calm things down. Howard had grabbed Smith's stick and tossed it aside in frustration following the third Blackhawks goal Monday night, but later in the dressing room, he was determined to switch from irritated to inspired.

"These Game 7s are fun, and you definitely see what you're made of," Howard said. "Just relax and take a deep breath. You take a step back and get ready to play."

They've done it once already, although that completed a stirring comeback in Anaheim. This time, the Blackhawks are the ones stirring and rolling.

Young mistakes

But everyone in Detroit knows the unpredictability of these clashes. If Game 7 is scoreless, say, midway through the second period, how tense you think it'll get for the home team? And what if Howard is back to saving everything, while Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford stumbles again?

When the Red Wings trailed the Ducks, 3-2, Zetterberg was magnificent in Games 6 and 7, with three goals and five points. He scored 1:04 into overtime to win Game 6, and his 11 points in the playoffs lead the team.

"Unfortunately, we've had two chances to win it, but by no means are we counting ourselves out," defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo said. "We have guys in this room who have won Stanley Cups, so we should feel good about our chances."

The Blackhawks might look primed to finish it off, with their captain, Jonathan Toews, doing a better job of shaking Zetterberg and creating chances. But in the ping-pong pressure game, it might be back on the Blackhawks, who were supposed to win this series all along.

The Red Wings have been making more mistakes, and had 12 giveaways in Game 6 to three for the Blackhawks. Third periods have been a tilt-a-whirl, and that's where youth hurts them. The Red Wings have been outscored 20-10 in third periods during the playoffs, a numbing disparity that may defy logic, but doesn't defy age.

"I thought we did tons of good things, and we made young mistakes in the third period and they ended up in our net," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "In the end, we didn't handle it, whether it was pressure or execution or whatever it was."

Lean on veterans

Whatever it is, if it happens again, the Red Wings season is over. It's been a fascinating ride, round and round, with expectations rising along the way. That means disappointment rises, too, if they waste a 3-1 series lead. From the start, I guessed Chicago would pull this out in seven games, but no one could've predicted the course it would take.

It's a delicate balance now. The young Red Wings players can't be afraid to make mistakes and commit turnovers, but the fact is, they can't afford to make mistakes and commit turnovers. The Red Wings need their steady hands and heady stars now. It's not an absolute truth because fluky things happen in hockey, but generally, the guys who know the way must show the way at the end.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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