March 17, 2016
In hour of post-season peril, Wings
captain Zetterberg must step up
By KEITH GAVE
So the Red Wings woke up this morning on the outside looking in – a non-Stanley Cup playoff team if the post-season were to begin on this St. Patrick’s Day. The way they’ve played most of the season, and especially in the last three weeks or so, that’s exactly where they deserve to be.
Philadelphia’s 4-3 win at Chicago Wednesday night moved the Flyers in the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference and bumped Detroit out of the playoff scenario. The Wings can reclaim their position with a win tonight at Columbus (7:30 p.m. face-off, Y101-FM), but Philadelphia will still have two games in hand.
So with 12 games left – five home, seven away, nine of them against teams with winning records and 11 of them against Eastern Conference opponents – the Red Wings’ chances of earning a berth in the Cup tournament have slipped to just 37 percent, as calculated by Sports Club Stats. Worse, they no longer control their own destiny.
If they hope to play in the post-season for the 25th straight year, they’ll need help in the way of other teams beating the Flyers and Pittsburgh in the fight for the final two playoff spots in the conference. And both Pennsylvania clubs are showing a hell of a lot more interest in advancing than Detroit these days.
This is a moment of truth for a team that has been in denial all season long. Their team statistics rank not among the better teams in the NHL, but among the worst. Their offense is woeful; they rank among the bottom seven teams in the league in goals per game (2.49), and four of those teams are lottery seeds. Their minus-7 goal-differential ranks 17th in the league. Their power play is anemic, ranking 24th at just 16.8 percent after finishing second last season.
We can go on and on, but here’s all you need to know: In nearly every meaningful team statistic other than goaltending, the Wings are middling to bottom-feeders in the league. In other words, the miserable truth is there is little reason to expect them to make the playoff field. And if by some small miracle they do manage to advance, there’s every reason to expect an early exit.
So no more deluding themselves about battling Florida, Tampa Bay and Boston for supremacy in the Atlantic Division. The Wings are in a fight for the playoff lives. And in the meantime we’re left to wonder what happened to a season that began with so much promise.
After all, this was pretty much the same team that shoulda woulda coulda beaten the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round of the playoffs last spring, right? I mean, didn’t Lightning players and coach Jon Cooper even confess during the Cup Finals against Chicago that Detroit was the best team they had played that spring?
This season’s team is arguably better after adding free agents Brad Richards and Mike Green, and Dylan Larking having a first half that earned him widespread Rookie of the Year consideration. Turns out Richards has been a colossal bust as a guy who was supposed to anchor a second scoring line. Green was supposed to be the triggerman on an already potent power play, but he’s passing up shots to try to make the perfect passes to forwards who can’t put the puck in the ocean, let alone shoot it on goal.
The obvious difference from one season to the next is coaching. Mike Babcock certainly had his playoff demons in Detroit, but he somehow managed to get his team to the post-season in each of his 10 years with the Wings, even in a couple of years when, as now, they didn’t appear to deserve it the way they had played most of the season.
So the fingers are pointing toward rookie coach Jeff Blashill. No matter how much you’ve won at other stops on your coaching resume, there’s a fairly steep learning curve for anyone making the jump to the NHL. Now Blashill is taking fire – and deservedly so – for not having his team ready to play in crucial games recently in Columbus and Philadelphia. The Wings win those two games, like they should have, and they’re looking over their shoulders at both the Penguins and the Flyers in the standings today.
But smart coaches, and Blashill is nothing if not smart, tend to defer to their leaders in times like these. Especially if they have leaders like the Red Wings do. Strong leaders prefer that as well, and the Red Wings have had outstanding leadership since Steve Yzerman became the youngest captain in their history 30 years ago.
Fair or not, that puts the onus squarely on Henrik Zetterberg, who has the weight of a quarter-century of remarkable consistency on his shoulders. Hank’s been here before. Three years ago, his team was down to four games remaining and trailing Columbus by three points in the standings. The playoff streak was in serious peril after 21 years.
Zetterberg stood up and told his teammates that streak was not going to end. Not then. Not ever so long as he’s captain. This remarkable run of playoff appearances, arguably the most impressive streak in league history, is not going to end “on my watch,” Zetterberg said. His team, which had won just one of its previous six games, won the final four games of that season, outscoring opponents 15-3.
Perhaps it’s time Zetterberg address his team again. Or maybe he can simply do what he’s done best throughout his career, and that’s lead by example. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Zetterberg hasn’t beaten a goalie in a month. So he can start by scoring a goal.