April 26, 2014 at 10:14 pm

Bob Wojnowski

In Bruins, Wings saw what they used to be -- and must be again

Boston — The penalty in the closing minutes provided the perfect summation. The Red Wings again were called for too many men on the ice, one final sign of jittery confusion.

And as it turned out, the big, experienced Bruins had too many men on the ice for the Wings to handle. This was partly men against kids, and maybe if the Wings’ veteran stars were healthier, it would’ve been more competitive. But the Wings knew they drew a tough matchup against the top-seeded Bruins, then went out and made it even tougher.

Boston wrapped up the series with a 4-2 victory Saturday, and for the fifth consecutive season, the Wings were bounced in the first or second round. This was the expected outcome, although after winning Game 1, the Wings seemed capable of taking it deeper than five games.

They probably should’ve taken it deeper. Three key players — Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Daniel Alfredsson — were battling health issues, and yet Datsyuk and Zetterberg scored Saturday. The Wings got no production from their youngsters and desperately needed more from others. Instead, they got baffling mistakes.

Johan Franzen didn’t score in the series, and that’s a problem. But the bigger problem in this game was his soft clearing pass that didn’t make it out of the zone, intercepted by the Bruins’ Torey Krug. Seconds later, Milan Lucic was all alone in front of the net, tapping in the goal that provided a 3-1 lead early in the third period.

Franzen deserves criticism for how he played, for showing he’s a guy who can be lifted by others, but struggles to do the lifting himself. In some ways, he’s a symbol of where the Wings are right now — not as good as he used to be (as they used to be), but always leaves you hoping for more.

After the loss, Franzen finally stood and took questions, frustration writ on his face.

“You never really go into a game thinking, ‘Oh, I gotta score, I gotta score,’” Franzen said. “I’m 10 times more disappointed over that pass I made than I am for not scoring. I always try to play defense first, and not make mistakes in my own end.”

Kids didn't come to play

It came back to the mistakes, from the inexperienced blue line — the Wings badly missed Jonathan Ericsson — to the youthful forwards. As impactful as the Wings’ kids were during the regular season, they skated smack into reality here. Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco combined for exactly zero goals and zero assists.

“Kids in general aren’t very successful at playoff time,” Mike Babcock said. “When you’re counting on them, they get here and find out there’s no space, and they wonder what’s going on. Instead of just fighting through it, they start thinking too much, and now they’re slow and not doing what they normally do.”

Boston has young players too, but this is a team that reached the Stanley Cup finals last season, and its star centers, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, are playing at full speed.

The Wings were in trouble when Datsyuk’s left knee acted up again early in the series, although he said he didn’t think he’d need surgery. Zetterberg provided a boost returning after an eight-week absence, but couldn’t do all he normally does.

You can’t even point to goaltending, although I’m sure some fans are itching to do so. Jimmy Howard was out with the flu, according to the team, but Jonas Gustavsson played decently in both games. The difference is, the Bruins have top goalie Tuukka Rask and experienced forwards and a disciplined defensive system that almost never bends.

We’ve said it many times— the Bruins are the team the Wings used to be, and would like to be again. With their young talent, the Wings’ future remains bright. They have more quickness than they’ve had in a while, but the Bruins were ready for it.

“They’re definitely a team that has great speed and also great offensive skills,” Bergeron said. “We played our game and didn’t get caught up in playing the run-and-gun type of game I think they like to play.”

Oh, I don’t think Babcock likes to play that way, he just didn’t always have a choice. Nyquist was swift enough to lead the team with 28 goals, and Tatar added 19, but they learned quickly it’s different in the playoffs.

“We did some uncharacteristic things — we took three too-many-men-on-the-ice penalties – and are we rattled, are we nervous as kids?” Babcock said. “We didn’t play up to our level, but it was real good experience for our kids. They got us in the playoffs, and they found out how hard it is.”

Zetterberg knows how hard it is, and was especially disappointed. He returned for two games after back surgery and figured to get stronger and stronger, but now it’s over.

“It’s no fun,” he said. “You want to go deeper in the playoffs. Obviously we gotta do something different to go deeper.”

There's a lot to do

The Wings need to replenish their depth, especially on defense. Their young guys need to play older and their older guys need to play younger. Aging players such as Todd Bertuzzi, Daniel Cleary and Mikael Samuelsson will be gone, and Franzen is not in that category.

But the Mule must be more impactful, and he tried in this one. He was scrapping in front of the net, whacking at pucks, getting nowhere.

“They’re a tough, tough, tough team to get to the net against,” said Franzen, who dealt with a concussion during the season. “They’ve done it so many years, they know how to win in the playoffs. Maybe this was the team that fit us the least. If we played against a more open offense, we could’ve been more successful. I think we battled, but we were maybe half a size too small.”

Half a size too small, half as deep, not nearly as good. There’s no shame in losing to a superior team, but it’s a refrain the Wings should never get used to hearing.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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Detroit goalie Jonas Gustavsson sits in the lockerroom after Saturday's series-ending loss to Boston. / David Guralnick / Detroit News