Wojo: Zetterberg motivated to win another Stanley Cup

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — It’s not about another supposed last run, even if it seems that way. It’s about the absence of long runs, a trend the Red Wings can’t ignore as yet another postseason begins.

No one should downplay the 25-year playoff streak, which is important and remarkable and rightly celebrated. But you can’t overlook this — the achievement has lost some shine lately, with the Wings losing in the first round three of the past four seasons. Instead of extending excellence, it feels more like extending a perfect-attendance mark.

Everyone wants more, from ownership to management to players to fans. After watching the Wings slip in again on the last day of the season, more doesn’t seem likely at the moment. Their goaltender, Jimmy Howard, was buried on the bench a month ago and must prove his revival is real. Their star, Pavel Datsyuk, is talking about returning to Russia, although he claims he isn’t 100-percent sure.

So much uncertainty, so many long odds. And yet, there isn’t a hint of despair in the Wings dressing room. Of course they believe they have a shot against a familiar foe in the Lightning, which eliminated them in Game 7 of the first round last spring.

Do they have a shot to win the Stanley Cup? Logic says no. Do they have a chance to beat the Lightning, gather some confidence and then who knows? They think they do, for precisely the reason they made it here despite their struggles — they’ve defied conventional wisdom for a while now.

“In here, we don’t really worry what other people think and the numbers they see,” Henrik Zetterberg said. “It’s been proven before they’ve been wrong. We’re here now and we have a good enough team to do some damage. We’re looking forward to doing it.”

As the captain and respected leader, Zetterberg is required to believe this and pass it along to the younger players. And he’s right that the numbers have been proven wrong many times, for and against the Wings.

Window is closing

This is why getting into the playoffs is always the goal, forever and ever, no matter if an early exit elicits cries of impatience or demands for an overhaul. No, it’s not the ultimate goal and the Wings aren’t satisfied merely keeping it alive. If anything, the longer it goes without an extended run, the more pressure mounts on general manager Ken Holland and his staff.

It’s a beast of their own making, sure, and another short run should spur roster changes. But the obvious truth is, the only way a franchise gets to keep making last runs is to keep getting in. Datsyuk, 37, Zetterberg, 35, and Niklas Kronwall, 35, don’t have a lot left, and one rising youngster that was going to save them, goalie Petr Mrazek, buckled and lost his job, for now. The Wings don’t appear to be in great shape for a run, which isn’t much different than a year ago.

“For a few of us here, we know the chances of going all the way is getting less and less,” said Zetterberg, who led the team with 50 points. “When you’ve been in the league over 10 years, you know your time is running out. It’s not just (Datsyuk), you never know when you get a chance again. ... The last couple years, the exits have been too early, we want to go deeper. Last year we were close, gave them a helluva series, and I thought we played well enough to move on. It’s no different this year.”

It’s easy to forget now, but that series was Detroit’s to grab. In Mike Babcock’s last run, the Wings led the series 2-1 and had a 2-0 lead in Game 4 at Joe Louis Arena with six minutes remaining. The Lightning scored twice, and Tyler Johnson netted the winner in overtime to knot the series.

The Wings rebounded with a 4-0 victory on the road and came home with a 3-2 series lead. They dropped the final two, 5-2 and 2-0, despite outshooting the Lightning, 31-16, in Game 7 without Kronwall, who was suspended.

Now, another tight series seems likely. Steve Yzerman’s Lightning is without injured stars Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman, although its other ailing players appear to be ready.

“When we play the right way, we can play with anybody, that’s the feeling in here,” Kronwall said. “They’re a very good team, obviously. And we got some revenge on them. Last year, it was very tight, I thought we had them on the ropes but we let it slip away from us.”

Experience helps

From the outside, observers see an aging Wings team without any stars in their prime. Their leading goal scorer is 19-year-old Dylan Larkin. They scored 211 goals, their lowest full-season total in 39 years, and finished minus-13 in goal differential, worst for a playoff team since the Canadiens in 1997.

Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2008 and returning to the Finals in 2009, the Wings haven’t gotten out of the second round. But generally, they haven’t been overmatched against good teams. After the Wings lost in seven last year, the Lightning went on to the Cup Finals. In 2013, the Red Wings lost to the Blackhawks in the second round in Game 7 (after leading the series 3-1), and Chicago went on to win the Cup.

Amid those crushers were the last runs by Babcock, Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom and other veterans. For a rookie NHL coach, Jeff Blashill has held this team together despite an aging top end, and now must handle the untimely news from Datsyuk. He’s still the Wings’ best two-way player, despite an ankle problem, and still a reason they can’t be dismissed.

But identifying this team’s strengths isn’t easy, which is part of the problem. Early, it was goaltending and defense. At times, it was simply Larkin. Now?

“One of our strengths, and I said this from day one, is character,” Blashill said. “The key to success is perseverance, and I think this team has shown that. We never broke. We faced lots of tough moments and we could’ve broke, and we never did.”

In the NHL playoffs, where the underwhelming suddenly can rise, it’s a short distance between almost-broke and going-for-broke. The Wings are familiar with the gap, and despite the streak, they’re aware they don’t get unlimited chances to close it.