DETROIT — Steve Yzerman became the captain of the Detroit Red Wings in 1986-87. He helped restore the Original Six franchise to glory, winning three Stanley Cups and earning a reputation as one of the game’s great leaders.
Nicklas Lidstrom succeeded Yzerman in 2006-07. He became the first European-born captain to win the Cup and cemented himself as the best defenseman – and one of the best players, period – of his generation.
Henrik Zetterberg succeeded Lidstrom this season. Along with Pavel Datsyuk, he dragged the Wings into the playoffs as a seventh seed, and now he has dragged them into a seventh game in the first round against the Anaheim Ducks.
If you think that doesn’t compare, you’re right.
Zetterberg and Datsyuk don’t have the supporting cast Yzerman and Lidstrom had for so many years. They don’t have Chris Chelios and Kris Draper and Sergei Fedorov and Slava Fetisov and Tomas Holmstrom and Brett Hull and Igor Larionov and Darren McCarty and Kirk Maltby and Brian Rafalski and Luc Robitaille and Brendan Shanahan and so many others. They don’t have another Zetterberg or Datsyuk on the roster.
Thanks to the salary cap and a lack of high draft picks, the Wings just don’t have the talent and depth they once did. At the same time, the NHL has become more competitive than ever before.
Yet Zetterberg and Datsyuk have had to carry on the legacy – a playoff streak of more than two decades, a fan base accustomed to sustained success, an arena with the word “HOCKEYTOWN” still painted in bold, black letters across center ice.
And they are holding on as hard as they can.
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“You talk about leadership on our team,” said Wings coach Mike Babcock. “We had Stevie, and then we had Nick. But those guys had way more help. Don’t ever kid yourself. They had a way different crew.
“It’s not like everybody isn’t trying or trying to maximize. I think our group is maximizing. But we’re different, and so those guys have had an unbelievable amount of pressure, and they’ve played hard and been determined, and that’s how they lead. They don’t do a bunch of talking. They just lead by being determined and playing hard.”
The Wings entered the final week of the regular season on the playoff bubble for the first time in a generation. They hadn’t missed the playoffs since 1989-90, when Yzerman was 24. They had made the playoffs for 21 consecutive seasons, finishing in the top four in their conference 18 times, enjoying a comfortable cushion the other three.
Zetterberg had four straight multi-point games as the Wings finished with four straight victories and extended their playoff streak to 22 seasons – two goals and 10 points total. Datsyuk closed with three straight multi-point games – two goals and eight points total.
It was as if the Wings trailed in a playoff series and their leaders willed them to advance, as their youngsters learned along the way.
“It was elimination games, every one of them,” Zetterberg said. “It was good for our group to go through that.”
Now here were the Wings on Friday night, trailing in a playoff series, 3-2. The series had gone back and forth – Ducks, Wings, Ducks, Wings, Ducks. It had been tight for the most part, with three overtime games. It was tight again.
Datsyuk and Zetterberg gave the Wings a 1-0 lead in the first period. They dominated possession in the Anaheim zone. Zetterberg won a battle in the left-wing corner and slid a backhand pass. Datsyuk schooled Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf in the slot and fired a backhand shot through traffic. Vintage Datsyuk and Zetterberg – skill and work ethic, production under pressure.
Zetterberg won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player in 2008. He had scored in all 19 playoff series in which he had appeared. But he didn’t have a goal in this, his 20th series, despite several shots. He admitted he was frustrated.
Then, facing a 1-1 tie in the third, Zetterberg wound up and fired a slapshot from the top of the left circle through a screen. There it was, his first goal. Datsyuk earned a secondary assist. The Wings extended their lead to 3-1, and Joe Louis Arena was jumping.
And then the Wings blew it. A brutal turnover behind the net. Another goal 51 seconds later, with only 2:37 left in regulation. Tie game.
Zetterberg nearly won it in regulation, intercepting a pass, eluding a defender and beating goaltender Jonas Hiller with 55 seconds left. But he hit the right goal post. For the first time in the Wings’ long history, they were going to OT for the fourth time in a series.
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The Wings could have panicked. Instead, their leaders spoke up in the dressing room and calmed everyone. Zetterberg and others – Todd Bertuzzi, Dan Cleary, Niklas Kronwall – told their teammates to forget about it. What was done was done. What mattered was what they did next.
“I knew that we were going to win it,” Howard said.
It was the Ducks who panicked. Coach Bruce Boudreau said they looked “very tentative” and committed a “panic icing” early in overtime. He called a timeout to rest center Saku Koivu after a long shift.
Faceoff. Left circle. Anaheim zone. Datsyuk tied up Koivu on the draw. Zetterberg swooped in, collected the puck and sent it to Kronwall, who sent it back. Zetterberg wound up and fired another shot from the top of the circle through traffic. The puck hit a Duck, fluttered through a screen and slipped into the net.
The Wings won, 4-3, 1:04 into OT.
“A lot of people in front,” Zetterberg said. “When you have that and have a little luck on your side, pucks go in sometimes.”
“In my opinion, Hank and Pav are the best two-way centers in the league,” Kronwall said. “It’s amazing what they do out there. Even if Hank hasn’t been scoring, he’s been one of our best players every night.”
“He’s our leader,” said Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard said. “He’s just an amazing guy, an amazing captain. When the chips are down, he comes to play. It’s fun to watch.”
And so, once again, there is more to watch.
Game 7. Sunday night. Anaheim.
“If we can equalize Datsyuk and Zetterberg,” Boudreau said, “I think we’ve got a good chance.”
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