December 8, 2013 at 2:00 am

Gregg Krupa

Wings continue to be a sum of their constantly shifting parts

Detroit — Jonas Gustavsson, Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist, essential to victory.

Who would have thought, especially this early on in the season?

Observe. This is the flowing part of flux, as in “We are in flux,” which Mike Babcock said of the team toward the start of the season.

Lots of pieces flowing, now, almost like someone opened the dams upstream.

The week started with Pavel Datsyuk apparently concussed and Henrik Zetterberg’s chronic back condition getting bad enough a disc ruptured and he was suddenly out of the lineup, too.

Then Darren Helm joined them with a bum shoulder.

All the while, Jimmy Howard, the top-hammer in net in this town for four seasons, sat for three of four games.

Flux. Guys in, guys out.

Shuffling the deck

If one goalie is winning and the other struggling to prevail, stick with the winner.

If the young forwards, who were seeing limited or no ice time early on, are suddenly keys to pressing the attack and effective on nearly every shift, extend their time on ice to push things.

The Red Wings lost 2-1 to the Panthers last night. But Gustavsson almost stole one for them, and it was as if the fans were expecting Tatar and Nyquist to step in.

And Nyquist quite nearly did.

With the game tied 1-1 in a seemingly lethargic second period for the Wings, Nyquist’s considerable playmaking abilities emerged.

Gathering the puck in the corner to the right of Panthers goaltender Tim Thomas, he feathered it through bodies and the crease perfectly to Jakub Kindl, who had squeezed down from the point.

It was a splendid setup, with Kindl alone at the crease and Thomas still desperate to get across.

But the puck slid off the heel of Kindl’s stick, just as he shot it.

A second season into what is hoped to be a transition toward their next roster to win the Stanley Cup, the Wings are suddenly more different than one might have thought.

Change persists.

Fans may yearn to go back, but the clock does not turn that way.

The whole idea for the Wings since May 31, 2012, when Nicklas Lidstrom announced his retirement, is to get the supporting cast to the point of playing well enough for at least one more shot in the Stanley Cup Final while Datsyuk, 35, and Zetterberg, 33, still skate for the Wings.

Howard certainly has played well ever since. But now it is time for him to watch a hotter goaltender.

What is wrong with Howard? Not much.

Not Howard's end

His performance, measured by the numbers, is just shy of where he normally is. With a .909 save percentage and 2.70 goals against, he is yielding eight more goals per 1,000 shots through 20 games than he has in his career, and giving up about one-third of a goal more per game.

So, why sit the goalie you want to star for you in the playoffs? Because, for a while, his backup refused to lose and we have barely reached the second week of December.

And when the defensemen are developing and your top two forwards, the cornerstones of the franchise, are out, a coach optimizes everything within reach, including sticking with the hot hand in net.

Gustavsson is now more than halfway to the 20 games Babcock thought he might get this season. If it gets closer to 30 and Gustavsson is playing well, it would seem like nothing but good news for the Wings.

A more-rested Howard, pushed to a superior performance by competing for playing time sounds like entering May in good shape in net.

That is less of an issue, let alone a controversy, than it is playing the ball as it lies.

As for Tatar and Nyquist, as Babcock likes to say, they have “grabbed their piece of it.”

After sitting in seven of the first eight games, while the Red Wings went 6-2, Tatar now has six goals and seven assists in 22.

After starting in Grand Rapids, much to the chagrin of some denizen of Hockeytown, who thought forwards too-old and ineffective had taken his spot in the lineup, Nyquist has four goals and three assists in eight games.

“I think Tatar and ‘Gus’ are creating stuff almost all of the time they are on the ice,” said the resting captain, Zetterberg, before the game, of the two young forwards.

After averaging just under 2.5 goals per game in each of the first two 10-game segments of the season, the Red Wings went to 3.4 in the third 10.

That is with Datsyuk down, and Tatar and Nyquist contributing heavily.

In the longer term, the injuries to Datsyuk and Zetterberg implicate the issue of age.

Datsyuk says he needs to take better care of himself so he is not at risk from hits like the apparently incidental contact from a big, young defenseman that caught arguably the most-gifted forward in the NHL square on the jaw, two weeks ago.

Is he still quick enough, at 35, to always get out of the way of the big boys? Perhaps not every time.

And Zetterberg’s back has been a problem on-and-off for much of his career, possibly more than is publicly known. It almost certainly will be problematic going forward, and perhaps more frequently.

So, as for the grand question of whether a maturing, improving roster of secondary players gains its promise while Datsyuk and Zetterberg are still playing for the Red Wings, this week may well have been a warning that there is not as much time as we think.

Fans may boo, occasionally, as they did just a little bit Saturday, when their team seemed lackluster. But while the Wings lost two points in the Atlantic Division to the Canadiens, Bruins and Maple Leafs Saturday, and one to the Lightning, they remain in a playoff position, entering the second week in December.

The feeling abides that this is what it feels like, in flux.

Hey, at least things are flowing.

Red Wings center Gustav Nyquist has four goals and three assists in nine games since being summoned from Grand Rapids. / Carlos Osorio / Associated Press
See Also