Niyo: Wings' issues don't end with Datsyuk

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — They keep telling us this chapter isn’t closed yet. That’s even what Pavel Datsyuk’s agent is saying now — “Never say never,” Dan Milstein reiterated Sunday — as the aging Red Wings’ star prepares for what could be his NHL farewell this month.

But the writing has been on the wall for some time now. And as this storied hockey franchise trumpets the silver anniversary of its Stanley Cup playoff streak — it’s not over until it’s over, they keep reminding us — it sure feels like we’re all just waiting for the epilogue, doesn’t it?

Maybe these playoffs will prove otherwise. The plot certainly has thickened, with Detroit sliding into the playoffs Saturday, nudged across the finish line by Boston’s last-gasp collapse against Ottawa. The Red Wings’ 3-2 loss in a must-win game in New York was rendered moot by the Bruins’ Beantown beatdown, and it left them sounding defiant even in defeat.

“They can say whatever they want,” goaltender Jimmy Howard said of his team’s doubters. “We’re in the playoffs. That’s all we care about.”

And that’s as it should be, particularly when faced with a first-round opponent limping into the postseason in their own way. Tampa Bay already was without top scorer Steven Stamkos (blood clot) and top-pair defenseman Anton Stralman (fractured leg), and Saturday the Lightning watched forward Tyler Johnson — their leading scorer in last year’s run to the Cup finals — leave after a scary fall into the boards in the regular-season finale at Montreal.

Stuck in the middle

Last year’s first-round series between these teams went to seven games — “We were that close,” forward Justin Abdelkader noted Saturday — and the Wings have been in playoff mode for weeks now, scraping to get in. So there’s that, I suppose.

But for the organization, there’s a broader picture here. And this new April hockey tradition — for the third consecutive season, the Red Wings squeaked into the playoffs in the final week (each time on April 9) in a losing effort — certainly is a part of it.

Wings open in Tampa on Wednesday

So are Datsyuk’s retirement plans — something the team won’t publicly address until after the playoffs, though they’ve privately braced for it for months, if not years — and the troubling questions they raise, both for the team’s salary cap and the whole notion of rebuilding this roster “on the fly.” That’s been the operational plan touted by general manager Ken Holland and his staff for years now, emboldened by the past glory and buoyed by a streak that’s now older than seven members of the current roster.

But that plan hasn’t produced a playoff run past the second round since 2009, something nearly half the league (13 teams) has done at least once in that six-year span. And with Datsyuk’s looming departure – exacerbated by a string of free-agent misses and the severely-diminished returns on so many other big investments — it’s hard not to view this playoffs as a watershed moment.

“We’re not content with just getting in,” Abdelkader said. “We know what type of group we have in here, and it could be an exciting run, if we do things right.”

Right or wrong, this could be a defining moment for many, from the reticent (and retiring?) star trying to conjure up one last bit of magic to the rookie head coach trying to pull something out of his hat as well. And yes, there’s also the GM (Holland) trying to avoid a second straight, first-round defeat to his one-time understudy and franchise icon in Tampa’s Steve Yzerman.

“The one thing I know about the playoffs is it’s a new year,” Jeff Blashill said after Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the Rangers. “Everybody’s so tight in the NHL that you see what happens in Game 1 and you go from there. Confidence can be gained as you go through the playoffs, I know that for certain.”

Maybe so, but the group he has — or at least the one he chooses to deploy — certainly doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence right now, entering the playoffs with their worst goal differential (minus-13) since 1991, the year the streak started.

Down seasons

The Red Wings’ leading goal-scorer this season was 19-year-old Dylan Larkin, and now he’s being asked to do something no one in Detroit has been asked to do in ages.

“We’re gonna need Dylan to be a top-line player for us through the playoffs,” Blashill said Saturday, “and not a 19-year-old kid.”

‘Never say never’: Datsyuk could return to Wings, agent says

That’s because the 20-something crowd isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire here, while the over-30 gang looks gassed. Zetterberg, who along with Datsyuk led all forwards in ice time in the regular season, has one goal in his last 24 games. More troubling, perhaps, is the lack of production from the next-highest-paid scorers on the roster, Abdelkader and Gustav Nyquist, who’ve scored just five goals apiece the last 48 games.

Blashill has made it clear he doesn’t trust some of the other young players at his disposal — namely Brendan Smith, Andreas Athanasiou and Tomas Jurco — and the team demoted rookie Anthony Mantha this weekend in favor of Joakim Andersson to start the playoffs.

The goaltending that kept them in it all winter finally left them for a spell starting in late February, right about the time Petr Mrazek suffered an injury in that outdoor game at Colorado.

Jimmy Howard’s late-season resurgence makes for an intriguing storyline this week, but will it be enough to carry this team into May?

Meanwhile, as everyone wonders about the cap ramifications of Datsyuk’s decision, it’s worth noting one of the Red Wings’ best players down the stretch in the regular season — Darren Helm — might be the one they can’t afford to re-sign as a pending free agent.

So, yes, there’s plenty to ponder as this story plays out. Just don’t expect to hear any of that from them now.

The streak is the Red Wings’ shield, and they’re still carrying it.

“You just have to get in,” Howard said Saturday, once they’d done just that. “I mean, it’s a new season now. And you know what? You just go out there and play.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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