Nobody, but nobody in the hockey world would blame the Detroit Red Wings if they went quietly into the night on Saturday. Technically, they would go quietly into the afternoon, but you get the idea.
The NHL does not hold an Everyone Gets a Trophy Banquet at the end of the season, so it’s unlikely the Red Wings will be rewarded for everything they’ve endured in 2013-14, a season that looks as though it will come to an end in Game 5 of their first-round series Saturday afternoon at the TD Garden in Boston. (Then again, this team is like Jason in the Friday the 13th movies. Just when you think they’re finally dead, they stagger up with that hockey mask on to wreak more havoc on their opponents.)
Actually, Game 4 of the series, won 3-2 by Boston in overtime, was a microcosm of the series. Detroit started well then flagged and was worn down and ultimately outclassed by a bigger, better, younger and much healthier team. For this, the Red Wings have no reason to hang their heads in shame. There’s considerable reason to doubt whether the Red Wings at their best and healthiest would have been able to handle this Bruins team in a best-of-seven series. But as they’re currently constituted, they shouldn’t, and don’t, stand a chance.
Henrik Zetterberg showed an enormous amount of courage willing himself back into the lineup, but it’s never a good sign when your captain is using TV timeouts to stretch out his back in the runway. According to a source close to the team, Zetterberg was supposed to play “limited minutes,” perhaps the occasional 5-on-5 shift and on the power play, but ended the game with more than 19 minutes of ice time. The Red Wings learned just before the game that their No. 1 goalie, Jimmy Howard, came down with what the team described as ‘flu-like symptoms’, leaving them no choice but to give Jonas Gustavsson the first playoff start of his career. And in true Red Wing fashion, Gustavsson the understudy gave his team exactly what it needed.
But this cannot continue. From the second period on, the ice was tilted in Boston’s favor and the only reason it went to overtime was the fact that the Bruins couldn’t seem to finish what looked like easy tap-ins into an empty net. The Bruins outshot the Red Wings 12-3 in the overtime period and even though the Red Wings were much better exiting their zone, were also trapped in there for long periods of time.
If nothing else, the Red Wings have run out of players whose wives can have babies in this series. It certainly seemed to work for Pavel Datsyuk, who welcomed his second child into the world, and Niklas Kronwall, whose wife gave birth to the couple’s first on Thursday. Both veterans responded with outstanding games, which is exactly what you’d expect from two proud veterans who know they’re needed and are still riding high on the fumes of being present for childbirth.
But unlike the regular season when their stars simply could not answer the call, the play of the stars has not been the problem for the Red Wings. One reason why they’ve failed to produce is the young players who carried them to the playoffs – Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Tatar – have been unable to replicate their accomplishments in the post-season. And that’s hardly a surprise. There is a long list of young players who were completely unprepared for the rise in the level of competition that comes with the playoffs. Dougie Hamilton, who banked a shot off Jarome Iginla on the game-winning goal, experienced that very thing last season during Boston’s run to the Stanley Cup final and he’s obviously now a better player at both ends of the ice for having experienced it. Hamilton has emerged as an impact player at both ends of the ice.
The Red Wings are just too banged up, too tired and too slow to keep up with the team that was the best in the NHL from Games No. 1 through 82. Their valiant run through all this adversity will likely be officially pronounced dead Saturday afternoon, but even on life support, they’re giving the Bruins all they can handle.