April 25, 2014 at 1:42 am

John Niyo

Henrik Zetterberg's return provides lift for Red Wings, but it's not enough

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Detroit — The playoff beard was ready long ago. And Henrik Zetterberg felt the itch, no doubt. His team was getting desperate.

So back came the captain. And here came the Red Wings, buoyed by the return of Zetterberg from a two-month injury absence as they tried to get even with the Boston Bruins.

The crowd roared, the players perked up, and the scoreboard even registered a goal or two for the home team.

But all things aren’t equal, not even in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where the decisive moments often look like a fluke. Most comebacks don’t end in triumph, either, which is why Zetterberg wasn’t just back on the ice Thursday night for Game 4. He was back in the dressing room, too, speaking for his team after a devastating loss.

First day back on the job, and there he was, putting a brave face on a death-knell series deficit after an overtime goal that everyone saw coming, long before it ricocheted in off a stick and a leg.

Everyone who understands the law of diminishing returns, that is.

“It’s steep,” Zetterberg said, when asked to survey the mountain his team now faces. “But we know it’s tough to close out a series. We’ve been in that spot before. You’ve just got to go and win a game and bring it back here.”

That’s what a team captain is supposed to say in this moment. And this is what a captain does, what Zetterberg did Thursday night, lacing up his skates and jumping into the fray, ready or not.

And for a time, he looked like the former, though surely not his old self.

A welcome sight

Gone, at least, was the grimace the fans saw the last time Zetterberg was on the ice in front of a sellout crowd at Joe Louis Arena, hobbling to the stage the night Nicklas Lidstrom’s jersey was retired in early March.

In its place was a grin that was a welcome sight, as Zetterberg hugged a couple of beaming new fathers, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall, early in the second period as the Wings celebrated their first two-goal lead of the postseason.

That they’d later relinquish it was no minor detail. And while the primary goal — knotting up the series — remained elusive, it was Zetterberg who started the play on that second goal, fending off a check behind the net to get things rolling.

“I felt good in the first, and halfway through the second,” said Zetterberg, who’d missed the last 27 games after undergoing back surgery in February. “And then I started to have really short shifts.”

And the Wings started to have problems, as the Bruins regained their composure. They were dominant in the faceoff circle all night, and they controlled the rest of the rink in the third period and overtime.

“But that’s the way it is,” Zetterberg continued, speaking about his own stamina, though he might as well have been talking about his team’s as well. “I had this first game, and hopefully it’ll just get better and better.”

Chances are, we’ll never know just how much better he could get in this postseason.

Two goals matched Detroit’s total in the series coming in, but it wouldn’t be enough on this night. Zetterberg’s return probably won’t be, either, given the vanishing acts we’ve seen by some of his teammates against a bigger, better foe in Boston.

But this was something, all right. And it mattered.

More than ice time

Zetterberg had hinted at the possibility of this unexpected return after his first “real practice” with the team Wednesday. But even then, he’d suggested he was days away from his playoff debut, not hours.

“This is just part of the process,” he shrugged, though he acknowledged later, “One of these days you just have to make a decision.”

At that point, he hadn’t yet been medically cleared. And even after Thursday’s morning skate, with Zetterberg on the top line with Datsyuk and Justin Abdelkader, Babcock said there remained some doubt.

“But because we’re even talking about it, I put him in the lineup, put him on the power play,” the coach explained. “The doctors decide, not me. So I’m hopeful.”

Asked what he expected to get from Zetterberg, Babcock admitted he wasn’t entirely sure, though he probably wasn’t expecting nearly 20 minutes of ice time, including 16:15 in regulation, short shifts or not.

“For us, let’s face it: We counted on our kids to get us in (to the playoffs),” said Babcock, who also benched rookie Tomas Jurco in favor of Todd Bertuzzi for Game 4. “We really counted on ‘em, we needed them to score. But we need some other guys to help them out right now when they’re trying to find their way.”

And who better to show them than Zetterberg, who was such a dominant presence in last year’s surprising postseason run. Babcock said he expected his captain “to provide great leadership, both in the room and on the ice. If we get nothing else, that’s good enough.”

He got a little something else, obviously, and more than just the roar from an appreciative crowd when Zetterberg jumped over the boards for his first shift. Or when he hit Datsyuk in stride on a nice stretch play early in the first period. (Where were those the first three games?) Or when he forced Tuukka Rask to make a juggling glove save on a wrister —Zetterberg’s lone shot on goal Thursday — from the high slot.

“I thought that line had good jump early,” Babcock said.

It wasn’t there late, however. On this night, and in this season, that was simply asking too much.

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Red Wings forward Darren Helm skates away as the Bruins celebrate the tying goal by Milan Lucic in the third period. / David Guralnick / Detroit News