February 26, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Red Wing playoff push is trudging uphill

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock now has to worry about beating Sidney Crosby instead of coaching him, as he did in the Sochi Olympics. (Nathan Denette / Associated Press)

Detroit — The Red Wings boarded a flight bound for Montreal Tuesday, hitting the road to begin the home stretch of the NHL season with a playoff berth — and their treasured postseason streak — hanging in the balance.

Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, meanwhile, was scheduled to fly home from New York, his season effectively ended by microsurgery on his back this week.

That kind of polarity has come to define the star-crossed Red Wings season, full of comings and goings that have left coaches and players alike chasing their collective tail.

But this latest shot, losing their leading scorer and emotional leader just when he’s needed most — losing him while he played for another team, no less — is a potentially devastating blow. And as the team gathered for its first full post-Olympic practice Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena — minus a handful of Swedes, four resting, one convalescing — there was no hiding from that.

“It’s huge,” goaltender Jimmy Howard said of Zetterberg’s absence. “He’s our leader. He’s the one who drives the train in here. It’s gonna be tough without him. But it’s no excuse. There’s still a lot of great hockey players in this dressing room.”

Maybe so, but don’t bother with comparisons to 2002, when then-captain Steve Yzerman opted to play for Team Canada despite a degenerative knee injury that’d eventually require microfracture surgery. Because that was a different team and a different era.

Olympic aftermath

The Canadian team that just won gold in Sochi — with Yzerman as general manager — is being hailed as arguably the greatest hockey team ever, but that Red Wings team in 2002 might’ve been the best in NHL history. With a bloated payroll and plenty of room for error, the Red Wings won 10 of their 20 games after the Olympic break and still easily won the Presidents’ Trophy.

It was a different story in 2010, with Howard going 16-2-2 down the stretch in his rookie season to backstop the Wings’ playoff drive. (“We sort of limped into the Olympic break and we came out of it playing our best hockey of the year,” he said.) Yet that was with a healthy Pavel Datsyuk and Zetterberg in the lineup, not to mention a blue line anchored by Nicklas Lidstrom with Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart.

This time, it’s a much taller order. And Howard, who sat idly in Sochi the past two weeks as Team USA’s third goaltender, knows he’ll be counted on heavily as Mike Babcock’s team tries to emulate the style his Canadian squad used to stifle the competition in Russia. (Easier said than done with Jonathan Ericsson in your top pairing instead of Shea Weber, of course.)

The Red Wings weren’t exactly an offensive machine before the break — 19th in the NHL at 2.53 goals — and beyond Zetterberg’s absence there are serious concerns about just what they’ll get from top scorers Datsyuk (knee), Johan Franzen (concussion) and Stephen Weiss (hernia surgery) in these final 24 games.

Datsyuk, still downcast after captaining the host country’s disastrous finish in Sochi, practiced Tuesday but said the injured knee that sidelined him for more than a month before the Olympic break is still, um, injured. And when I asked him if he expected it to stay that way until season’s end, he didn’t say no.

“I hope one day the pain is (gone),” Datsyuk said. “Now it’s still the same.”

Franzen, who stayed home from the Olympics, says he’s cleared to play again after missing 22 of the last 23 games with post-concussion symptoms.

But he’ll wait to see how he feels after today’s morning skate. And given his history, that’ll be a daily question for some time.

Weiss, the team’s biggest free-agent acquisition last summer, made the trip to Montreal but won’t play until next week at the earliest. He says it’s a “night-and-day” difference the way he feels on the ice before and after surgery, but with four points his first 26 games in Detroit, it’s hard to know what to expect whenever he does return to the lineup.

“I’m just champing at the bit to come back and help the team out,” Weiss said. “It’s been a long, long wait.”

Trade deadline

There’s not much time for Ken Holland, the Red Wings general manager, to decide what, if anything, he can do to help. The youth movement that kept this team afloat the first 50-plus games was essentially thrust upon him. Now, Holland must decide if he’s a buyer or seller — or both, or neither — with the trade deadline looming a week from today.

The Red Wings aren’t interested in making a deal for a high-priced rental, and I wouldn’t be, either. Not with a team that’s barely a 50-50 bet to make the playoffs, even in the Eastern Conference.

But a “hockey deal” for a player that’d help now and later, and particularly one for a top-four defenseman — someone like Vancouver’s Alex Edler, perhaps — makes a lot more sense.

The Wings appear to have a surplus of good, young prospects, and with Zetterberg out indefinitely, they’ve finally got some wiggle room under the cap, too.

For now, though, they’ve got a razor-thin margin for error, and plenty on the line.

“We’ve been dealing with it all year — there’s nothing you can do,” said Babcock, who planned to give his pep talk at a team meeting Tuesday night after the team arrived in Montreal. “He ain’t coming back. So let’s get on it. …

“There’s no sense worrying about it. We’ve got to find a way to get in. That’s what we’re gonna do.”

If he does, he’ll deserve another medal. And one hefty contract extension.


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