Niyo: Feeble efforts put Wings' playoff run in jeopardy

John Niyo
The Detroit News
The Penguins' Nick Bonino celebrates his third-period goal, scored against Jimmy Howard. The Penguins defeated the Red Wings 7-2.

Detroit — Mike Babcock knew what was coming. Or rather, he knew what wasn’t.

And if the Red Wings’ core players didn’t like the sound of that last spring, they surely didn’t like the sound of this Saturday, the chorus of boos that ushered them off the ice after a disastrous second-period performance at Joe Louis Arena.

They probably didn’t enjoy the lecture they got from Babcock’s successor, either, as first-year Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill disgustedly called a timeout after the Pittsburgh Penguins made it 6-2 midway through third period Saturday, sending the fans fleeing for the exits.

The game was effectively over — “I knew at that point we probably weren’t winning the hockey game,” Blashill acknowledged later — but he wanted to make a belated point, telling his players “we better play good hockey so that come Monday we’re ready to play good hockey.”

Ready or not, there goes the season. And the postseason, perhaps, though nothing's out of reach just yet. It's just that in the midst of another late-season scramble to make the playoffs here in Detroit, it’s hard to argue with any of it, really: The anger and frustration of the moment — in the stands and on the ice Saturday — or the iffy forecast of a year ago.

“We are what we are,” Babcock said then, praising his opponent’s youthful roster while perusing his own — the one he was about to leave behind — after the Lightning eliminated the Red Wings from the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. “They were bad here (in Tampa) for long enough that they were able to rebuild and get good young players, and young players at key positions. … Three of our best players are 34 35 and 37.”

That comment didn’t sit well with some of his prideful, soon-to-be-former players in Detroit. But as it sits now, with this Red Wings team on the outside looking in at the playoff picture with two weeks to go in the regular season, it still resonates.

Old guns firing blanks

Because the players Babcock was referring to — Niklas Kronwall, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk — simply aren’t good enough to carry this team any longer. Everyone can see that. And the young veterans being counted on to take their place — or at least take the reins — simply haven’t been accountable. Or at least not that anybody could see Saturday, as the Red Wings lost for the seventh time in 12 games this month.

“It was embarrassing, and we have to do a lot better than that,” Kronwall said after the 7-2 loss — a game the Red Wings actually led 1-0 after 20 minutes. “We have to be better — pretty simple.”

If only it were that easy. But for the Red Wings, still clutching their precious 24-year playoff streak, it’s simply not any more. Not in a league rife with parity, and certainly not with a roster littered with questionable contracts and inconsistent results.

‘Embarrassing’: Wings steamrolled by Penguins

Saturday’s matinee meltdown on home ice produced a season-high in goals allowed — they've allowed four or more in six of their seven losses this month — and the most for a Red Wings’ opponent since March 14 of last season, when they got thumped by an identical 7-2 score in Philadelphia.

After that one — the Wings’ fourth loss in five games as they scuffled down the stretch — Zetterberg decried his team’s timid play and declared “enough is enough.” Babcock added, “If this isn't an exclamation mark, I don't know what is."

Saturday, Blashill essentially said the same, once he finally emerged from a closed-door meeting with his coaches and front-office staff, including general manager Ken Holland, that lasted nearly 45 minutes after the game.

And while he declined to elaborate on what was said in his office, he didn’t hide his disappointment with the Red Wings’ effort. He didn’t want to dwell on it, either, though, which probably won’t sit well with fans who sat through Saturday’s debacle.

“It was frustrating,” Blashill said. “It was embarrassing. But it’s a loss. That’s it.”

That’s it?

That can’t be it if the Wings intend on celebrating a silver anniversary with their postseason streak next month.

In a pickle

Blashill hinted some lineup changes might be in the offing for Monday’s must-win game against Buffalo. But he’s limited in what he can do defensively — there is no Kris Letang on this roster, obviously — and up front it’s unlikely one of the holstered young guns will be a difference-maker with seven games to play.

Still, it was speedy Andreas Athanasiou who provided the Wings’ only real jolt Saturday, jumping off the bench on an awkward line change and turning a would-be turnover into a breakaway goal for the early lead. He still was clutching his mouth guard between his teeth as he scored it, too.

That’s now six goals and five assists in 24 games for Athanasiou since his second call-up from Grand Rapids in mid-February. Only two Detroit forwards — Datsyuk and Darren Helm — have scored more since the All-Star break. And that’s despite Athanasiou playing the fewest minutes — 9:21 of ice time per game — of any regular forward in the lineup.

That begs more than the obvious question: Why isn’t he playing more? (Athanasiou did play 12:16 on Saturday) It also calls into question the guts of this next-generation lineup fans were promised, both by that late-season push in 2014 and by Holland’s roster moves since.

Gustav Nyquist has three goals in 26 games since the All-Star break. He has 16 in 75 games this season, a year after scoring 27 goals and two years after that mid-winter blitz gave him 28 in just 57 games. Saturday, he managed just one shot on net in 20 shifts, and if he doesn’t find a way to find the net — or make something happen — these next two weeks, Nyquist should have no trouble making plans to watch his namesake race in the Kentucky Derby in the first week of May.

Same for Tomas Tatar, the other scoring winger who isn’t scoring nearly enough. He, too, registered a single shot Saturday, and it was his center-ice gaffe — a turnover followed by a lazy attempt at back-checking — that led to the back-breaking fifth goal. And eventually that timeout that produced Blashill’s red-faced rant on the bench a couple minutes later.

“I thought we got goofy in the third — that’s why I called that timeout,” the coach explained afterward. “I just thought we were starting to play — I know we were trying to come back and all that kind of stuff — but you’ve got to play good hockey. You can’t develop bad habits.”

But on the last Saturday in March in Detroit, where the hockey team has habitually made the playoffs, that sounded a bit like wishful thinking.

Twitter @JohnNiyo