DETROIT — So many players have come through the Detroit Red Wings’ dressing room already this season, they’ve had to find a new facility.
In, ahem, the facilities.
Across the hall from the main room, tucked underneath the stands, behind the Wings’ bench, there is a bathroom. It is a women’s bathroom for concerts at Joe Louis Arena. It is makeshift TV and radio area at times, affectionately dubbed “Studio P.”
The Wings have built temporary stalls in the vanity area – in front of the mirrors and sinks, on the other side of the wall from the other kind of stalls – to handle overflow in training camp and the playoffs. This is the first time veteran equipment manager Paul Boyer can remember having to do it in the regular season.
But despite all the injuries and call-ups, on top of the retirements of Nicklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom, on top of the loss of Brad Stuart in free agency, do the Wings stink? Is their 21-season playoff streak swirling down the toilet?
Nope. Not yet, anyway. The Wings entered Wednesday night’s game against the St. Louis Blues on a three-game winning streak and sixth in the Western Conference, looking like they will remain very much in the mix, at minimum.
Their top two players – Henrik Zetterberg, the captain, and Pavel Datsyuk, the magician – are healthy and leading. Zetterberg went into the game against the Blues with 18 points, third in the NHL, behind only Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek and Chicago’s Patrick Kane.
They seem to have found another European gem, Swiss free agent Damien Brunner. He isn’t eligible for the Calder Trophy because he’s 26, but he leads all first-year NHLers with six goals.
They’re getting good goaltending from Jimmy Howard, even though his 2.78 goals-against average and .906 save percentage don’t reflect it, and coach Mike Babcock is scrambling to cover up weaknesses maybe more than ever before – learning what his team can do, adjusting its style, pushing, pushing, pushing.
“We can win if we’re organized and we look after the details and we compete our butt off,” Babcock said. “If we don’t do those three things, we have no chance.”
That was clear opening night. The Wings got smoked in St. Louis, 6-0.
“The Blues really …”
Zetterberg laughed. He can laugh now. Sort of.
“Just killed us,” he continued. “We had no chance. Of course, we knew it was just one game, but the way we played and the way we showed up was not good enough.”
The loss stayed with the Wings for days afterward. They knew they weren’t on the same page. They knew they were two steps behind. They knew they were chasing the puck all night long. For the proud who had seen so many good days in Detroit, it was an odd, uncomfortable feeling.
“It was embarrassing, really, walking off the ice,” said defenseman Niklas Kronwall. “You didn’t really want to show yourself at the restaurants or anything for the next few days.”
And then it got worse. Or should have. The injuries started to pile up. It got so bad on defense – already down three of the top four from two years ago, when you add the retirement of Brian Rafalski after the 2010-11 season – the Wings had to sign free agent Kent Huskins and plop him into the lineup the same night, without even a morning skate.
But since opening night, Zetterberg has gone only one game without a point, and Datsyuk has been strong. The Wings entered Wednesday night having beaten the Blues in their last two meetings by a combined score of 10-4. They had won five of seven.
“The top two guys are incredible,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. “I wish [Babcock] would have played them together. It’s a better matchup for us. When you play them separate, it’s pick your poison. We’ve always tried to get [David] Backes against Datsyuk, and now Zetterberg’s kind of doing his thing.”
Zetterberg has helped bring along Brunner, with whom he played and clicked in Switzerland during the lockout. Both Wings superstars have set the example for their teammates, as usual.
Look at Datsyuk in the past two games: The 34-year-old dogged the Edmonton Oilers’ hotshot kids – chasing down Taylor Hall and swiping the puck on the backcheck, badgering Jordan Eberle along the end boards in the defensive end. He took a nasty hit from the Los Angeles Kings’ Drew Doughty, losing his helmet in the offensive end, but he popped right back up and raced back the length of the ice. He scored a gorgeous goal on his next shift, and then he got even more revenge.
This is not to condone head shots, and this is not to call Datsyuk dirty. He has won the Lady Byng Trophy multiple times for sportsmanship and a high standard of play. But he went after Doughty later.
“He just missed his head by about this much, too,” Babcock said. “He was going huntin’. He’s competitive – nothing wrong with that – whereas you’ve got other guys who get abused and then say, ‘Please, can I have another,’ instead of going huntin’.”
Babcock can’t say enough about Zetterberg, Datsyuk and their competitiveness.
“I mean, it’s great to be talented,” Babcock said. “But it’s another thing to be talented and really competitive, and that’s what they are.”
The Wings aren’t as talented as they used to be, especially when they’re thinned by injures, and so they have to be even more competitive than they used to be.
When they had Lidstrom and Rafalski on the back end, they could move the puck so well, they could afford to be spread out. They could get away with it. They didn’t spend much time in their zone.
Now, they have stay tighter as a group. They have to make sure they give each other solid passing options. They have to work harder in all three zones. The forwards have to support the defense, and when things inevitably break down, Howard has to make saves.
“Their forwards do all the work,” Hitchcock said. “They really help out, so their defensemen don’t have to make big plays, they’ve got to make the good little plays. … They’ve got a lot of speed on the checking. They really skate. This is the best they’ve skated to check in a few years now.”
The Wings can improve, especially if their health improves. Put Todd Bertuzzi, Darren Helm and Mikael Samuelsson back in the lineup, and you’ve got another line’s worth of NHLers – plus some minor-leaguers with added NHL experience. Hitchcock said the Wings are deeper than they have been in a long time.
But they’re going to have to improve, and they’re probably going to need that depth. While this portion of their schedule is home-heavy, they will play 14 out of 20 on the road from March 9 to April 20. The West will be highly competitive to the finish.
Gone are the days when the Wings could get comfortable, certain they would need extra space in that bathroom during the playoffs.
“Our best way to live is to live a little bit scared to death and just keep on grinding and competing,” Babcock said. “If we do that, we’re going to have a chance to hang in there. As soon as we breathe and think we’re something we’re not …”
That's when the Red Wings might really go from the penthouse to the outhouse.
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