Wojo: Another fast exit means Wings need new approach

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Tampa, Florida — The Red Wings did everything but score. Petr Mrazek made every play except the last big one. This was the crushing fate again for the Wings — wasted effort in another early playoff ouster — and more changes are needed.

They spent the series chasing a bouncing puck and a better fate, and caught neither. If you need a snapshot of the Wings’ utter frustration after a 1-0 loss to the Lightning Thursday night, frame Pavel Datsyuk’s sweat-soaked face as he fielded questions about his possible retirement.

He said it was too soon to decide, he was too emotional, he needed a few days to cool down. He said he still couldn’t believe the Wings lost, and they certainly played well enough to win. But this is where they are now, squeezing whatever they can out of whatever they have left. They scored eight goals in the five-game loss, and Datsyuk was held without a point.

He wasn’t the reason the Wings lost, only a symbol of why they lost, a picture of worn-out greatness. The Wings have made the playoffs 25 straight years but been eliminated in the first round four of the past five, so there are larger issues here, and GM Ken Holland absolutely must address them.

There were miscues and missed shots and a 1-for-25 abomination on the power play. When the final horn sounded, the Wings were on another failed power play, bitterly fitting. Alex Killorn scored the only goal with 1:43 left after a huge gaffe, when Mrazek flubbed a behind-the-net pass intended for Jonathan Ericsson. Ryan Callahan intercepted and flipped it to Killorn for the winner, unfortunate for Mrazek, fitting for this season.

“It’s getting tougher and tougher,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “The first step is making the playoffs, we keep doing that, but then there’s nothing more. We played well, did a lot of good things, but you have to score goals in this sport.”

Familiar feeling

This looked almost exactly like the 2-0 loss in Game 7 to Tampa Bay last year. Jeff Blashill sounded almost exactly like Mike Babcock, proud of the effort but unable to explain why it produces so little.

The Wings dominated much of the second and third periods but couldn’t solve goalie Ben Bishop, the star of the series. They never solved their power-play woes and that’s a negative mark on Blashill, who failed to find answers. They couldn’t even score on a breakaway, incredibly missing on three chances in the second period, by Riley Sheahan, Darren Helm and Dylan Larkin.

Datsyuk now faces 'scary questions' about future

“I thought our guys played really well, we just couldn’t find a way to find the back of the net, obviously,” Blashill said. “You can say whatever you want, but in all four losses, it was tied in third period. The power play wasn’t good enough. When you put yourselves in position to win hockey games, you gotta win them.”

It’s really not any more complicated than that. Fixing it is the confounding part, and Holland faces an important, difficult offseason.

The Wings were flummoxed by their scoring woes but came out desperately determined to skate through it. When they weren’t on the power play, they were pretty darn good, and for much of the night, they had the Lightning scrambling.

Mrazek was tremendous until the end, and there’s no excuse. Whether he heard Ericsson call for the puck or not, it was a soft pass that Callahan easily swiped.

“You have to play 60 minutes, not 59, so this happens in hockey,” Mrazek said. “If there weren’t mistakes, there wouldn’t be goals, that’s how it is.”

But the Wings didn’t capitalize on the Lightning’s mistakes, and that’s why Holland somehow must find more top-line talent. Oh, and more rugged defensemen. We’ll have plenty of time to sort through the roster, and the Wings were too devastated in the immediate aftermath to debate it.

Man non-advantage

The power-play issue clearly climbed inside their heads during the series. They talked about it, and even talked about not talking about it. And then Game 5 began and they went back to their baffling ways, changing little. The Lightning are so good at blocking shots, the Wings appeared afraid to shoot. They had a great chance to light an early spark when the Lightning were whistled for back-to-back penalties, giving the Wings a two-man advantage for 1:14, and they squandered it. They got one prime chance but Datsyuk fired a high shot that clanked off the post.

Unable to take advantage of their one- or two-man advantages, the Wings were reduced to narrower paths to success. No. 1, they could hope Mrazek was masterful, and until the end, he was. Or they could try to control five-on-five play, and they did a good job of it.

In two games in Detroit, the Wings outscored the Lightning 4-0 at even strength, and were outscored 3-0 at uneven strength. The power play is mind-boggling, really. But stop me if you’ve heard this before — in the playoffs, the Wings scorers get put on ice. That either means they’re not good enough, or they get worn down because they’re smaller.

That’s an issue for Holland more than the rookie head coach. Larkin has gotten more and more time, but expecting a 19-year-old to figure everything out during his first playoff is expecting too much. Larkin finished with one goal in the series, which gave him the honor of being tied with seven others for the team lead.

The disturbing part is, scoring issues are hardly new. Going back to last year’s seven-game ouster, the Wings scored two goals or fewer in the last seven playoff meetings against the Lightning. Two years ago, the Wings scored two goals or fewer all five games in a first-round loss to the Bruins.

And sure enough, here were the Wings again, dominating the second period with prime chances, burying none of them. Datsyuk stirred flashes of the past and had a couple of one-timers that were stopped. Gustav Nyquist had three chances in about a two-minute stretch, and fell as he tried to shoot the last one.

When Tampa Bay took a penalty with 44 seconds left in the game, the Wings had a six-on-four advantage with the goalie pulled. They fired the puck, had some close calls and couldn’t score. That was still on Datsyuk’s mind as he begged off questions about his future. I suspect he’ll head back to Russia, but who knows. When I asked if health was a factor, especially his ankle, he shook his head.

“I’m pretty healthy,” he said. “Everything’s fine. Only my hand can’t score.”

It was grim humor, a Datsyuk staple, clever to the end. It also had elements of truth, for him and his teammates. They couldn’t score, an ailment that hasn’t gone away no matter how hard they try. There’s no quick fix after a quick exit, but they can’t keep doing things the exact same ways and expect a different outcome.