Woe captain: Zetterberg can’t fathom missing playoffs

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Henrik Zetterberg has been a Wing since 2002, and captain since 2013, but now is facing the most trying time of his career with Detroit languishing in last place.

Detroit — He knows.

Henrik Zetterberg is not oblivious to the facts at hand.

Having played a key role in the success of the Red Wings over the past 14 seasons, his awareness of the fine edge of the franchise dulling and, perhaps, even fading is far keener than he might let on, as he works.

Zetterberg, Detroit’s captain since 2013, continues to try to lead, coax, cajole and carry the team to more consistent success.

Amid some of his best on-ice performances since a troublesome back virtually immobilized him three years ago this month at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, he said he believes the Red Wings still have a shot at the playoffs.

But, oh, their galling inconsistency!

In his media scrums this season, which are comparatively more detailed and explanatory than in his previous four as captain, Zetterberg’s greatest source of frustration is this lineup’s ability to play like it can beat any NHL team one game and the worst team in the league the next two.

“Because when we play the way we should play and the way we want to play, we are playing well,” Zetterberg said.

“Even maybe if we don’t win those games and we don’t score enough goals, we’re in their zone and we’re creating a lot of chaos. And then, when we’re not doing that, we can be really bad.

“And that’s the frustrating part for us,” continued Zetterberg, who would become the first Red Wings captain not in the postseason since Steve Yzerman in 1989-90 — without a fairly quick, sharp alteration of course.

“We all know it, and we all talk about it. But it comes down to little things and doing them right every single day.

“It’s so easy not to do that and cheat a little bit, and all of a sudden the parity in the league is so high now, you can’t cheat. You can’t take a day off.”

He has been making the case for a while, now, with the team.

With their playoff hopes already in trouble, on Dec. 13, the Red Wings blew a gimme putt. They lost to the lowly Coyotes at home, and showed almost no capacity for beating them, especially in the early going.

Zetterberg flung the dressing-room doors closed after the game and said it was not only a performance short of what is required, it was embarrassing.

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It is not the only time this season he has spoken out. His teammates say he has done it more this year than in other seasons.

And he even has taken himself to task publicly, too.

In a hauntingly similar performance against the Devils on Tuesday, in the first game coming out of an All-Star break with their season in steep peril, Zetterberg said the poor start, in which rampant sloppiness and a failure to attend to the details cost them more critical points, was his fault.

“That’s on me,” he said.

His teammates begged to differ. But the captain is the captain. And this captain knows that the trend of the franchise — nine years after its last Stanley Cup, eight since its last Stanley Cup Final, and with no appearances in the conference finals ever since — is downward.

Fight to the finish

Now, the Red Wings are in last place in the conference, they have the worst power play in the league and they have scored the all-important first goal in only 20 of 50 games this season.

“If you think about it, the last four years we have been battling all of the way until the end,” Zetterberg said. “So, it hasn’t been a success in my mind. Success is going to the conference finals, going to the Stanley Cup Final, being one of the teams that battles at the end. Even though we made the playoffs for that long, being out in the first round is not a success for me.”

Henrik Zetterberg

It is plain, however, that he is disappointed by a team that plays so poorly, so often, when it can play so well.

Something that is going well, this season, is playing with Anthony Mantha.

Mantha’s development is a source of light.

“The good thing with ‘Moe’ is he’s smart kid,” Zetterberg said, referring to the big rookie by a nickname that proceeds from Maurice “Moe” Mantha Jr., a 12-season veteran defenseman before coaching in the minors. “Even though he is young, he is really mature in himself.

“He knows when he is good. He knows when he’s bad.

“And he’s not afraid to come to me after the game and say, ‘Hey, I know I was bad. I’ve got to be better the next game.’

“And to have that mentality and you know when you are good and when you are bad? It usually takes a while for a player to know that. But he knows that already.”

Zetterberg said he is impressed that in Mantha’s first full year, he is playing as well as he is. But attending to the details are important.

“There’s not many people that come into the league and produce and play well all of the time,” he said. “But the things that we talk about and we work on is the little things.

“Even if you don’t have a great game with your stick, or you’re not feeling great, just do the little things right.

“Fore-check good, be in the right spots.”

Mantha said Zetterberg’s attention is a considerable plus.

“To reach a goal, he’s been a great instructor for me,” Mantha said. “I’ve looked at him since last year, how he prepares, how he practices, how he plays.

“It’s a little different this year, now that I’m playing with him. He’s trying to help me out.”

Staying positive

Mantha, other players and the coaches over the seasons credit Zetterberg with being a rock of stability in the room. He does speak up, and more these days. But his serenity is of considerable influence.

“He’s a source of absolute calm,” said coach Jeff Blashill, who credits Zetterberg’s performance on the ice this year with regularly lifting the team.

If the team could master the art of doing all the little things right, even when players have a bad night, they would find more success. And that is mostly Zetterberg’s message.

More success is required immediately.

Now that the roster is getting healthier, there might be some opportunity, regardless of the size of the task and the lateness of the hour. The Red Wings lead the NHL in man games lost to injury, and by nearly 15 percent over the Oilers.

“Injuries are unfortunately part of the game,” Zetteberg said. “Some years are worse than others. The team we have this year, the margin for players being in and out is not high.

“We don’t have the backups like we’ve had before. When key guys go down for a long time, it is tough to stay on that high level.

“It’s been a concern for us, this year, and we hope now that in the last 30 games, here, we can get a little healthy and get on a roll.”