Detroit — If they played with speed, maintained their structure and got good goaltending, they would have be a tough out, Wings coach Mike Babcock said before their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series against the Bruins. They did not.
They did not.
As usual, Babcock was right. The Wings got into the playoffs despite a badly injured roster because of a brisk pace, disciplined deployment, improving play from goaltender Jimmy Howard and a strong performance from backup Jonas Gustavsson.
They were slower in the series. The Bruins — who were not slower by much during the season, despite their size and toughness — were at least as fast, for most of five games.
The structure deconstructed at times, as various Red Wings failed to mind the details of their game.
Howard’s mistakes led to the initial goals in Games 2 and 3 for Boston. The Bruins, who went 15-1-1 in March and won the President’s Cup, are beginning to play like that again. They are not a team to be given any advantage, let alone a first goal in an NHL playoff game.
(It may be true, however, that Howard suffered a concussion before allowing the soft, first goal to Dougie Hamilton, in the first period in Game 3.)
During the season, “the kids,” players in their early and mid-20s who played mostly in Grand Rapids until this season, all came up big. They hit a wall called the Stanley Cup playoffs, which has required years of experience to master for many NHL players.
Five Red Wings made their playoff debuts this series, and five others played in their second postseason. And that accounts for one-half of the roster.
“I don’t think we played up to our level,” said Babock, whose ninth season as coach of the Red Wings may well have been his finest. “I’m not trying to take anything away from Boston. But you want to be the best you can be. I don’t think we were.
“But we had a lot of kids in the series, and they found out how hard it is.”
Young guys carry them only so far
Improbably, the players who were more Grand Rapids Griffins than Red Wings got them into the playoffs, after the most injuries for the franchise in the three decades since they began keeping that statistic.
They could go no further.
Part of it is that while the Wings may have been a tough eight seed, they were no surprise to anyone. Their accomplishment of making the playoffs and style of play in doing so was well-noted around the NHL.
Part of it also is that teams started treating Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar for what they became during the season: the Red Wings’ top offensive threats.
Riley Shehan and Tomas Jurco got a lot more attention the playoffs, too.
The quartet of fine young players garnered no goals, no assists and were a combined minus-4 in the five-game series.
“(Patrice) Bergeron and (David) Krejci are good players in their prime,” Babcock said, comparing the rosters. “(Pavel) Dastyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg are hurt.”
“We were counting on young guys, and I think it showed.”
Bruins own the ice
The Red Wings looked slower in the final four games than in Game 1, and slower than when they beat the Bruins in three of four during the season.
Despite their size and toughness, the Bruins were never that much off the pace.
And, under coach Claude Julien, they also emphasize defense. Their ability to “close gaps,” stay close to the Red Wings in coverage, denied a quicker team the room on the ice necessary to launch offensive thrusts.
Add to that the Wings’ continual challenge generating offense from their comparatively inexperienced and young defense, in the two seasons since the loss of Nicklas Lidstrom and three since Brian Rafalski retired, and it was a recipe for a quick exit from the series and playoffs.
It hurt them five-on-five, and it hurt them on the power play.
No sustained offense
It all added up to the Red Wings’ consummate failure to set up in the Bruins zone and sustain pressure on the fine goalie Tuukka Rask.
In four games during the regular season, the Wings scored 13 goals against Rask and the Bruins.
In five games in the playoffs, they managed only six.
Until almost half of Game 5 was over, the Red Wings had no scoring chances — not one — from any of their forwards.
At about 10 minutes of the second period, Zetterberg got the first. Moments later, Daniel Alfredsson got the second on a splendid scoring opportunity.
But the Bruins have a big eraser.
Rask erases hope
During the season, the Wings had considerable luck against Rask, the likely Vezina Trophy winner as the best goalie in the league.
They seemed to counter his considerable ability and vast talent with speed and shooting for the top corners, or screens and deflections with bodies in front.
In the spare moments in five playoff games when they were able to generate some opportunities, Rask was far more than equal to the task.
Comparing him and his style to goalies around the NHL, it is arguable Rask leaves less space at which to shoot than almost anyone. He was highly touted when he sat on the bench and watched Tim Thomas, of Flint, play the whole 2011 playoffs and win the Stanley Cup.
Rask was brilliant in this series. And the Bruins would likely have won if he was merely good.
Three veteran Red Wings played injured, something that’s not always routinely done in the NHL anymore, let alone in other sports.
Fittingly, two of them, Datsyuk and Zetterberg, scored in Game 5, and Alfredsson added considerably to the Wings’ offense.
Datsyuk has nursed a bad knee through the season, providing himself an opportunity to play for Russia in the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, the late-season stretch drive and the playoffs.
Odds are the author of “Datsyukian” is headed for surgery this offseason.
He plainly did not have his highest gears for speed. But Datsyuk bumped with Zdeno Chara and other Bruins, scored half the Wings’ goals in the series and garnered five of their 18 points.
Datsyuk’s shooting percentage was well into the sniper category, at 27.3 percent.
Zetterberg returned from a back injury for the fourth and fifth games of the first round, after it was long suggested he was possible for a second round.
The Red Wings’ captain entered the lineup with a single full practice after back surgery, just a few days after he was scheduled, immediately after the surgery, to be exposed to any contact, at all.
Surgery and recuperation chewed up two months and 10 days, since Zetterberg’s last game, skating for Sweden at the Olympics.
Alfredsson continually played in the last weeks, if not months, of the season with a 41-year-old dodgy back.
His effort was superb.
The trio serves as example for the passel of young Wings in many facets of the game, including plucky determination, when a season is on the line.