January 23, 2014 at 10:25 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Injury-riddled Wings discover resolve in exuberance of youth

Detroit — Darren Helm fired the puck and then pumped his fist, and for one loud moment at least, it seemed like the playoffs again. In a wildly entertaining game, the Red Wings locked up with an old foe and refused to let go, and unleashed their most gratifying moment in a rocky season.

The Wings beat the Blackhawks, 5-4, in a shootout, with Helm scoring the winner, and just when the obstacles seem insurmountable, they hint that they’re not. It wasn’t long ago these teams shared the same clean ice and the same clear goal. A lot has happened since the playoffs, and a lot more now separates the Wings from the champs.

But not much separated them on this night, as the Joe Louis Arena crowd roared throughout the frantic third period and overtime. When Jonas Gustavsson stopped Chicago’s final shootout attempt by Andrew Shaw, the place erupted.

This had a little bit of everything, and had to mean more than your standard Wednesday night affair. It’s only one game but there are only 32 left, and the Wings need every boost and every point they can get.

“I actually think since the Winter Classic, this young group has played very, very hard,” Mike Babcock said. “The teams we’re playing right now are so good, with the lineup we have, if we’re not all dialed in, there’s no chance to win. I thought our guys were really determined.”

It has to ratchet now, because the Wings’ playoff streak again is in jeopardy. They began the night 11th in the East, two points out of a playoff spot. Of course, it also looked dire a year ago, when they won their final four games to keep the 22-year run alive. Then they beat the Ducks in a Game 7 and nearly beat the Blackhawks on the road in another Game 7, losing 2-1 in overtime.

It didn’t look good for the Wings early in this one, but trailing 2-0, they struck with youth, the primary way they must strike these days. Tomas Tatar knocked in a rebound as the young makeshift line stirred it up. Later, when Gustav Nyquist took a perfect pass from Henrik Zetterberg and fired it past Corey Crawford for a 4-3 lead, the Blackhawks might have felt the slightest nagging twinge.

New blood

In last season’s lockout-shortened 48 games, the playoff-streak anxiety was somewhat created by circumstance. This time, it’s as real as it’s ever been. The Wings have been without six of their top nine forwards for long stretches, and now again are missing goalie Jimmy Howard for a week or more. They’ve looked helpless at times, but certainly not hopeless, not lately.

Amid the staggering spate of ailments, the youngsters have done very well — good enough to keep the team afloat, mistake-prone enough to confirm their age. Missing so many scorers, the Wings also need help from guys like Patrick Eaves, who scored once in regulation and again in overtime.

The injuries are crushing, but no one gets a free pass this season, and no one expects it. As accomplished as GM Ken Holland is, his reliance on aging, familiar faces — once a strength of the organization — can become a crutch. When you build smaller, older teams, you dazzle at times, and if you’re really good at it, you make the postseason 22 straight years. But smaller, older teams can break down, and the Wings haven’t gotten much from their veterans.

Todd Bertuzzi and Daniel Cleary struggle to keep up. Re-signing Mikael Samuelsson was a disaster. Free-agent Daniel Alfredsson has been solid but is out because of a back injury. Another signee, Stephen Weiss, is out after hernia surgery. Johan Franzen is out because of a concussion and Pavel Datsyuk has been out because of a lower-body injury.

It’s almost comical at times, though no one’s laughing. There are 27 locker stalls in the Wings’ dressing room, too few to accommodate the influx. So after a recent practice, rookie Riley Sheahan sat on a folding chair in front of a garbage can, his nameplate slapped above a wall thermometer.

Zetterberg admirably battles on, but is forced to do the bulk of defensive work. The Wings instantly become more dangerous the moment Datsyuk returns, and he said Wednesday he was getting close. He also said he’d be ready for the Sochi Olympics in his native Russia, and that’s good. But to be honest, having a league-high 10 Olympians (same as the Blackhawks) does the Wings no good.

In the balance

I know what you’re saying — come on, does one more playoff spot matter for a team that likely doesn’t have enough to win it all? To which I say, it always matters in hockey. The last time the Wings saw the Blackhawks, they pushed them to the brink as huge underdogs, and should have won the series after taking a 3-1 lead.

“They’re the best team, and we almost took them out of the playoffs,” said defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, back after missing 10 games with broken ribs. “We know when we’re playing our best, we can beat anyone.”

They played with rocketing urgency Wednesday, and if they’re going to prove themselves playoff-worthy, they’ll have to do it quickly. The standings are written on an eraser board in the dressing room, and they see it every time they head to the training room, which is often.

Is it too early to stress the importance of the playoff streak? Shouldn’t be.

“We walk by that board every day, there’s no one in here with their head in the sand not knowing what’s going on,” Babcock said. “But let’s be honest, we’re not giving anybody a run if we’re not healthy.”

They gave the Blackhawks a run and have played better lately, even as the gurneys still roll. It won’t be easy to keep it going, but the Wings played like a team determined to try.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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Rookie Gustav Nyquist celebrates his second-period goal with Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg Wednesday. / David Guralnick / Detroit News
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