Detroit — It’s a mounting chore now. Before the Red Wings can convince anyone they’re good enough to beat the Bruins, they have to convince themselves all over again, while staring at a fresh pile of evidence to the contrary.
The challenge is daunting, which is usually the type of challenge Mike Babcock enjoys. There’s a fine line between hope and false hope, and the Wings are straddling it right now. After a quick start, they’ve been outscored 7-1 the past two games. If this series is to become a battle instead of a belting, we’ll know tonight, when the Wings face the Bruins at Joe Louis Arena.
And no, it’s not wise to count on some magical fix. Captain Henrik Zetterberg skated hard during a regular practice for the first time in eight weeks Wednesday, and sounded as hopeful as he’s been since undergoing back surgery. Sporting the bushiest beard in recent playoff history, Zetterberg cracked a smile, which cracked open some hope, which was not his intention.
“We want to rush it, but we want to do it at a safe pace,” he said. “Once I feel good enough and healed enough to get cleared (by doctors), that’s probably when I’m gonna play. It’s not only in my corner. I have to still go through a few steps before we start that conversation.”
Babcock wasn’t interested in starting the conversation either, and I understand why. Before the team can think about bringing Zetterberg back, it has to prove it’s worth the risk.
Would even a rusty Zetterberg make a difference? Possibly, but I’d bet that’s still several days away. In the meantime, Babcock’s task is simple, although not really. He’ll remind his players how they’ve beaten Boston in the past, how they pulled out the opener, 1-0, and why they aren’t done unless they think they’re done.
“(The Bruins) are really good players, but we got some good players, too,” Babcock said. “What I ask of everyone on our team is, ‘Is there anything they’re doing that makes you compromise your game?’ If there is, do something about it. This thing about us standing around on the outside (away from Tuukka Rask), you ain’t scoring like that.”
After the 3-0 loss in Game 3, which dropped the Wings into a 2-1 series hole, Babcock looked bewildered. He had no inkling such an awful effort was coming, which suggests he’s not sure what to expect tonight.
The young players looked anxious and jumpy at the start of Game 3, and some of that is expected, if not excused. This part is inexcusable: The Wings’ experienced players have done little to compensate. Pavel Datsyuk is playing injured and still has his scintillating moments, no complaints there.
Veteran time is now
But Johan Franzen supposedly is here for these moments, and has one point. David Legwand and Daniel Alfredsson (if he can stay healthy) were brought here for these moments, and have zero. Jimmy Howard and Niklas Kronwall are steady veterans who haven’t yet raised their games.
The Bruins posted the best record in the NHL for a reason, and play methodically disciplined defense. But before anyone crowns ’em, the Wings at least should challenge them.
“We’ve been behind so fast the last two games, you don’t even get to test Boston,” Babcock said. “You gotta get on the inside to find out if Rask is doing anything. We all know he’s a world-class goalie. He looks great in warm-ups — that’s where he’s getting his most shots.”
Ouch, but fairly accurate. The Wings have two goals in three games, their lowest-scoring start to a postseason since 1945. It’s not like Rask is robbing them, either. The Wings are giving up the puck and giving up space, drifting to the outside instead of patrolling the front of the net.
That’s where Franzen needs to be, especially now. He scored 25 goals in the 2008 and 2009 postseasons, but has just seven in his last 30 playoff games. Asked how Franzen could be more productive, Babcock gave a four-word answer: “Get on the inside.”
More pep in the step
The Bruins are inside the tough areas and inside the Wings’ heads. With all their agitators, from Milan Lucic to Brad Marchand to the towering Zdeno Chara, they’re a difficult team to knock off its game. The Wings won three of four in the regular season and swiped Game 1, so they shouldn’t be devoid of hope, should they?
“We know we can play with this team,” Gustav Nyquist said. “I don’t think we feel like the media does, saying they’re the big bad Bruins. We just gotta play a little faster.”
It’s less about pep talks and more about pep in the step. Babcock is a masterful motivator, and he has a big task here. It would be more manageable if he had his captain on the ice, but from a unique vantage point, Zetterberg sees the same thing the coach sees.
“We just gotta be smart,” Zetterberg said. “You can’t give them anything because they don’t give you anything. If it’s a really boring game, that’s a good game. You just gotta be patient.”
Wise words from an impatient observer. Zetterberg is pushing to get back and Babcock is pushing to get his team’s poise back, but few teams push back harder than the Bruins. The Wings may be discouraged by it, but as part of the growth process, they also should be enlightened by it.