DETROIT – In its usual context, the octopus is a symbol of success and excitement for the Detroit Red Wings. It is a rite of spring: A fan throws one onto the ice at Joe Louis Arena, its eight legs representing the eight victories once needed to win the Stanley Cup. Zamboni driver Al Sobotka twirls it over his head. The crowd roars.
Out of that context, though, the octopus is just a slimy, smelly mollusk, and Thursday night, it was a reminder of just how bad things stink for the Wings right now.
Somebody inexplicably tossed one in the waning moments of a game against the Calgary Flames – in early November, during play, with the Wings trailing by two. The Flames ignored the dead invertebrate lying on the ice and scored an empty-netter to win 4-1.
The Wings lost their sixth straight (0-5-1). They are far from the playoffs in terms of the calendar and the standings. They have won four Cups since 1997. They have made the playoffs for 20 straight seasons and recorded more than 100 points the past 11 seasons – not to mention 15 of the past 17 full schedules – and yet, for the moment at least, they are 13th in the West and on pace for 82 points.
Actually, that's not clear at all. The Wings are good enough, and what Zetterberg means is that they're just not playing good enough, and no one has a good reason why.
"I don't have an answer for you," general manager Ken Holland said.
These are the exact same guys who started 5-0-0 and were the second-to-last team to lose in the NHL. The story through five games was how they had allowed only seven goals, tightening up defensively after finishing 23rd in goals against last season.
Then they allowed seven goals in one game – a 7-1 loss to the Washington Capitals, the league's only other undefeated team at the time – and it's as if all those pucks hit an off button in the back of the Detroit net.
"It's amazing, actually," Zetterberg said. "We were 5-0 and feeling pretty good about ourselves and doing good things and then …"
"Um," Zetterberg continued, "it's a different team."
The story now is how the Wings have struggled offensively and made uncharacteristic mistakes. They ranked second in scoring last season at 3.13 goals per game; they have scored only six goals the past six games.
Pavel Datsyuk(notes) has no goals, four points and a minus-6 rating during this losing streak. He is one of the most talented two-way players in the game, a three-time winner of the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward. But he's not producing and has turned the puck over at times.
Zetterberg has two goals and only four points this season; he has only one goal and two points during this losing streak. Although he is another elite two-way player, he has turned over the puck at times, too. He's minus-6 this season, minus-8 during this losing streak.
Danny Cleary(notes), who scored a career-high 26 goals last season, didn't get his first goal this season until a puck hit his body and went into the net Thursday night. Todd Bertuzzi(notes) has only one goal this season. Go down the list.
"It's a hard game when you can't score," Holland said. "Right now we can't score."
The Wings have not been immune to slumps over the years. They had an ugly little five-game homestand just last March. They went 1-2-2, capped by an embarrassing 10-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues before a booing home crowd, and they still ended up within a game of the Western Conference final.
But usually there has been an easy explanation for their slumps – like injuries or just plain regular-season boredom. There are no excuses like that this time. The Wings are healthy, and they have long believed in getting off to a good start to build up a cushion of points and keep stress levels lower during the inevitable adversity to come. They started 17-4-2 last season.
So what is it then?
The changes behind the bench? Maybe. Babcock parted with two assistants – Paul MacLean, who became the head coach of the Ottawa Senators, and Brad McCrimmon, who became the head coach of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL and died in the tragic crash of the team plane in September.
MacLean and McCrimmon were longtime NHL players and coaches, and this is a veteran team. Looking for fresh ideas, Babcock brought in two replacements with no NHL experience – Bill Peters, who came from the AHL, and Jeff Blashill, who arrived from the college ranks.
You would expect an adjustment period, and you would expect that to show up on special teams. The Wings rank 19th on the power play (15.6) and 23rd in penalty killing (77.8), and it's even worse than it looks. Four of the Wings' seven power-play goals have come 5-on-3. They're 5-for-40 – or 12.5 percent – otherwise.
The retirements? Maybe. The Wings lost four accomplished veterans: Kris Draper(notes), Mike Modano(notes), Chris Osgood(notes) and Brian Rafalski(notes). Draper, Modano and Osgood were depth players by the end, but especially Draper and Osgood were leaders in the dressing room. They're part of the organization still, but it's not the same.
Rafalski was Nicklas Lidstrom's(notes) defense partner, and that's significant. Ian White(notes) got off to a good start as his replacement, with two goals, three points and a plus-5 rating during the five-game winning streak. But he has just one assist and a minus-4 rating since.
The improvements of other teams? Maybe that, too. While the Wings got a little weaker in the off-season, many of their competitors got stronger.
But none of that really explains this. It doesn't really explain why the Wings followed up that 7-1 loss to the Caps – a game in which they felt they played well until late in the second period – with a flat 4-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the worst team in the league. It doesn't really explain why things haven’t gone well since then, why superstars like Datsyuk and Zetterberg have struggled.
The Wings lost three games essentially by one goal – 4-2 to the Sharks after an empty-netter, then 1-0 and 2-1 to the Minnesota Wild. They outshot the Flames through two periods Thursday night, 19-10, but still trailed, 2-1. "We hadn't given up anything, so that part's puzzling," Babcock said.
They outshot their opponent in each of their past five losses. "I don't think you can go through any of these games and say, 'Geez, we're getting outplayed,' or any of that," Babcock said. "That's not the case. But we're not winning."
Babcock has shuffled some things, like putting Datsyuk and Zetterberg on separate lines. The players have been pressing, trying to go on offense, messing up in their own zone. They have been passing when they should shoot in the offensive zone, overthinking, trying too hard. In the third period Thursday night, the fans booed as the Wings fumbled the puck on a power play.
The Wings have talked about going back to basics – shortening shifts, working hard, taking care of the defensive end first, executing through the neutral zone, shooting the puck, getting traffic in front, standard stuff.
"We're good enough in here to figure it out, and we have to stick together and believe in ourselves and keep going," Zetterberg said. "It's still early. We still have time."
The end of the Wings' run will come one day, but probably not yet – not while Lidstrom is still playing, not while Datsyuk and Zetterberg are still in their primes. For now, this is just a funk. The Wings are just out of sync. There isn't enough evidence to suggest the octopi won't fly again this spring.
That said, no team can take a playoff spot for granted in today's NHL – not even a team that has made it for two decades straight.
"It is still a lot of games left, but you have to break out of a slump like this," Lidstrom said. "You have to come out and face the adversity and come out on top, and that's something we haven't done yet."