DETROIT – Practice was over. Nicklas Lidstrom sat in front of his stall in the Red Wings' dressing room Thursday at Joe Louis Arena, talking to one of his teammates as a trainer packed his equipment for Friday night's game in Nashville. The trainer picked up the bag and hauled it away. Lidstrom stood up and slowly walked into the void, toward the reporters who had been waiting to speak to him.
He had to know what was coming. After a few questions about Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne and defensive coverage related to the Wings' 3-1 deficit in their first-round playoff series, sure enough, someone asked The Big One. Do you think about your future, that this could be your last game?
"No," Lidstrom said quickly and flatly. "I don't think like that. I think I've learned from the other years …"
"… that I try to push that aside and just go out and try to play a real solid game, play a good game and come out with a win."
This has become routine, all too routine for Detroit fans. The Red Wings lose three games in a playoff series, and the retirement question comes up, and along come the fears of a domino effect. It's a legitimate question. They are legitimate fears.
Lidstrom has been taking it year to year for at least a couple of years. He will turn 42 on April 28. He has won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman seven times, and yet he is so understated and consistent he is largely taken for granted – until people consider what the Wings would be like without him.
But people need to keep things in perspective. If the Wings lose three games, it does not necessarily mean they are going to lose the series. If they lose the series, it does not necessarily mean they are going to lose Lidstrom. If they lose Lidstrom, it does not necessarily mean they will lose their status as contenders, as irreplaceable as he might be.
Let's look at the dominoes one by one:
1. This series: I picked the Predators to win this series. I still think they will win this series. But I picked a seven-game series, and I won't write off the Wings until they're done. In their three losses, they outshot the Predators, 121-65. In their only win, they were outshot 26-17. Go figure.
Rinne has been the difference, bringing back memories of goalie ghosts past – Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Dwayne Roloson … The Wings have run into this many times before in the playoffs. All their skill and puck possession goes for naught, because their opponent keeps too many of their shots to the outside and a hot goalie keeps enough of them out of the net.
But as Wings general manager Ken Holland said simply: "He's a person." He's human. And he's had some help.
In Game 3, a 3-2 Nashville victory, Predators defenseman Kevin Klein got the shaft of his stick on a puck headed for a gaping net. In Game 4, a 3-1 Nashville victory, the Predators' Mike Fisher swiped a puck off the goal line and the Wings' Jiri Hudler hit a goal post. The referees also failed to award the Wings a penalty shot when the Predators' David Legwand covered up the puck in the crease.
The Wings need to keep the puck away from Rinne's outstanding glove, capitalize on a couple more of their chances and fix a breakdown or two in their end.
"I think we've just got to stay the course," said Wings coach Mike Babcock.
2. Lidstrom's future: Lidstrom has high standards. He will not hang on too long. If he feels he or the Wings are slipping, he will walk away. The man has never missed the playoffs in 20 NHL seasons and isn't about to start now. I have written many times that he will leave when he could stay, and the odds of his retirement obviously increase each year.
But the thinking is that as long as Lidstrom thinks he can play at an elite level and the Wings can win, he will continue to play. There is no reason to think much should change on either front in 2012-13. So if he does leave, it probably won't be because of performance. He will be going out at or near the top of his game.
Lidstrom won his seventh Norris last season even though he was minus-2. He said he wanted to improve that number. He was plus-21 in the 2011-12 regular season. Now, some of his other numbers were down – some of them way down, like his assists (23) and points (34). But that was mostly due to the Wings' uncharacteristically weak power play and the longest injury recovery of his career.
He missed 11 games with a bruised ankle down the stretch. He's still playing in pain, not killing penalties, making mistakes you never see him make normally – whiffing on a puck, giving away another. But this is not a structural injury, not something that will require surgery, nothing that should nag him after it is allowed to heal. It does not mean his body is breaking down.
Asked if the injury would be a factor in his thinking, Lidstrom said: "No. It won't be a factor at all." He will do what he always does: take some time after the season to assess his motivation, then let the Wings know his decision so they can plan for his return or his departure.
Babcock said it best: "I'd be shocked if he retired, but I've been shocked before."
3. The Wings' future: If the Wings lose to the Predators, the trend will be this – Stanley Cup, Cup final loss, second-round loss, second-round loss, first-round loss. If the Wings lose Lidstrom, too, they will lose their captain and cornerstone.
But are the Wings declining? Or is the rest of the NHL catching up?
The Wings aren't one of the dominant powers anymore, but those other old dominant powers – Colorado, Dallas, New Jersey – all have had big dips. The Wings haven't. They have posted at least 100 points for 12 straight seasons and 16 of the past 18 full schedules. Not only have they made the playoffs for 21 straight seasons, they are one of only two teams that has made the playoffs every season since the 2004-05 lockout.
The Wings won when they could outspend everyone. Owner Mike Ilitch never wanted the salary cap that commissioner Gary Bettman brought to the NHL, and he certainly doesn't like what has come with it. Ilitch told the Detroit Free Press before the playoffs: "You talk about parity. Mr. Bettman got his parity – deluxe."
Still, the Wings have remained a deluxe team, if you redefine deluxe to mean they're one of the teams with a shot at the Cup, the best for which you can hope in a cap system. Defying gravity the way the Wings have for so long is impressive under any system, but remaining in the mix under these circumstances is even more so.
There will never be another Lidstrom. It would be a near miracle if the Wings, who haven't drafted high in forever, could unearth two more diamonds like Pavel Datsyuk (a sixth-round pick) and Henrik Zetterberg (a seventh-rounder). Without those two, who replaced stars like Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, the Wings would have had to rebuild by now.
But Datsyuk is 33. Zetterberg is 31. They aren't exactly ancient. The Sedin twins – Daniel and Henrik, still shooting for their first Cup with the Vancouver Canucks – are 31.
And though the Wings have some old players, they have several others that are still in their primes and some that are actually young. The Wings still have savvy scouting, smart management and lots of salary-cap space.
They still have some advantages. If all is equal, a free agent has to choose a team for reasons other than money. The Wings can offer Original Six tradition, a recent history of winning and a market where hockey matters but doesn't matter too much. They don't need to sign Ryan Suter and Zach Parise and every other top free agent that could come along in the next year or two or three. They just need to sign one or two or three, and they've got a good chance of doing that.
This will not last forever. Someday the Wings will miss the playoffs – a rash of injuries or a bad skid could be enough to do it in this league – and someday the Wings will have to rebuild, not just reload. But when that day comes, they will be able to point to an unparalleled run of success. They will be able to say the day came more than a decade after people started worrying about it.
In 2001, the Wings lost in the first round. At that point, the trend looked like this – Stanley Cup, second-round loss, second-round loss, first-round loss. I wrote the story for the Detroit Free Press. The headline: "PAST THEIR PRIME?" They acquired Dominik Hasek, Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull that summer and won the Cup the next season.
Eventually it will end. But until then, if there is one team in the NHL that has earned the benefit of the doubt, it's Detroit.
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