June 1, 2013 at 9:30 pm

Gregg Krupa

Wings exceeded expectations despite heartbreak against the 'Hawks

Detroit -- There never has been a season like this.

We hear that every once in a while, in sport. A team or player does something so singular, something that is such a departure from the norm that hyperbole, while not entirely accurate, seems appropriate.

But when have the Red Wings ever had a season like this?

It is hard to think of one. And, if you start researching it, something similar is hard to find.

Steve Yzerman retired and Brendan Shanahan went to the Rangers at the end of 2005-06. But the Wings still had Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios and Niklas Kronwall on defense, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom (a 30-goal scorer in 2006-07), Daniel Cleary, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby up front and Dominik Hasek in goal.

In the early 1990s, the Wings added Sergei Fedorov, Lidstrom, Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Kozlov, Martin Lapointe, Darren McCarty, Chris Osgood and Keith Primeau. But they did not all start the same year, as six first-year players did this season.

And they were not a roster in flux after losing players who won Stanley Cups and were headed to the Hall of Fame.

Instead, they still were rebuilding from The Dead Things, or Dead Wings, as fans dubbed them in the 1970s and early '80s.

Gordie Howe retired in 1971 with a number of good players on the roster. But then Ned Harkness, of the Darkness with Harkness era, traded them all away, giving birth to The Dead Things.

The glorious teams of the 1950s, who won four Stanley Cups in six years, were built gradually, with Johnny Bucyk, Alex Delvecchio, Glenn Hall, Howe, Red Kelly, Ted Lindsay, Marcel Pronovost and Terry Sawchuk arriving at various intervals during and after World War II and, with the exception of Delvecchio and Howe, leaving the same way.

The 1943 Stanley Cup was much earlier and during the war, when chunks of every roster in the NHL were in the armed services, for Canada.

Before and after the consecutive Cups of 1936 and '37, there were no large and coincident departures or arrivals of talent.

Better than advertised

So, when Holmstrom and Lidstrom retired, Brad Stuart was traded after 2011-12, Brian Rafalski retired a year earlier and the Red Wings skated with six first-year players for much of 2013, it is, in fact, likely literally true that there never was a season like the one that ended Wednesday in the 86-year history of the franchise .

And it all went pretty well, too.

As they were cleaning out their dressing stalls Friday, Mike Babcock was asked if the players exceeded his expectations.

"Oh," he said, "that'd be more than true. Yep."

Losing in overtime in the seventh game to the Blackhawks was a kick in the gut.

But no one could have expected them to be there.

For a while, it was easy for any fan or observer to think we were alone in enjoying the experience of watching Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl mature and Joakim Andersson, Damien Brunner, Danny DeKeyser, Brian Lashoff, Gustav Nyquist and Brendan Smith enter the lineup, "grab their piece of it," as Babcock likes to say, and not let go.

But, as it became apparent late in the season, tons of citizens of Hockeytown enjoyed it.

Anticipating a decline in popularity for the Red Wings, with the departure of Lidstrom? Think again.

At every game, the stands were mostly filled. And by the end of the season their emotions were unbridled.

"The fan support we had this year, late in the season and the playoffs, was maybe the loudest, most boisterous we've had since I've been here," Cleary said. "It was amazing; the treatment that we got, how they responded.

"I thought as a team we really came together."

It's about the present

The start was scary, for all. Most fans had to wonder: Who are half of these guys, especially back on the blue line?

And when the whole third line got hurt early, and stayed hurt?

By the time the Wings self-destructed March 13 in Calgary it began to look as though there would be no playoffs and not much hope, generally.

But they garnered intense loyalty in a good old-fashioned, Detroit sort of way.

They huffed and puffed and sweated until they got a big job done.

"I thought the guys worked really hard," Babcock said. "I thought it was a real competitive group that tried to get better each and every day.

"You know, I was obviously disappointed like everyone else. I thought we could be playing in L.A. here tonight.

"But we're proud of what happened here. We're proud of the guys.

"I also think we've revitalized our fan base a little bit in that, you know, it's not a thing of the past. We don't have to talk about the past. We can talk about the present.

"I think sometimes when you've been so successful for so long you get hung up on the people that went before you.

"It's about who's here now, and we got a good group."

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

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Chicago's Jonathan Toews congratulates Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard after Game 7 in what was hard-fought playoff series. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard gets out of his uniform following the ... (David Guralnick/Detroit News)