So that’s that. That giant “25!!!!!!!” logo at centre ice at the Joe Louis Arena barely had time to settle in and feel a part of things. As hokey and it was embarrassing to push the marketing of a playoff streak to a fanbase which hasn’t seen a Conference Final game in seven seasons and counting, maybe it still ended a whole lot sooner than anyone imagined.
Regardless, the Red Wings in a 1-0 loss in Tampa, are now 13-24 in their past 37 playoff games, have been knocked out in the first round in four of the past five seasons (three of those four defeats in five games), and will have their toughest task yet to make the postseason a 26th straight season in the spring of 2017. It’s also the second time in the past five years, the Red Wings have had the ignominity of being the first of the sixteen teams to have to offer congratulatory handshakes to a conquering opponent. They were that team against Nashville in 2012, and were the second team to be eliminated in 2014, when they lost Game 5 to Boston, just two days after the very same Lightning squad were swept out by the Montreal Canadiens. There’s tons of big-picture stuff I’ll attempt to get to over the next several days, but let’s stick to last night’s Game 5, and some slightly larger-scope issues for the entire series, now that it’s complete.
1. Ben Bishop saved his best work of the series for the clinching game. Amazing, isn’t it? When there was even a sliver of hope after Detroit’s Game 3 win on home ice this past Sunday, it wasn’t because of the goaltending of the Lightning starter, and no one expected the goals to come any easier for Detroit because Bishop would somehow lose his edge and start to play worse. He was good in last night’s first period, excellent in Detroit’s 14-shot second period, and steady enough in the third. I always have said, there are goalies you can visualize winning the 16 games required for the Stanley Cup, and those that you cannot. Evgeni Nabokov for San Jose was always one I didn’t fully believe in. We can even admit now that most Red Wings fans wouldn’t have had the confidence for Manny Legace to accomplish such (though he only was granted that 2006 run at it). I currently don’t believe Brian Elliott can do it despite the stacked squad that players in front of him in St. Louis. Bishop can, quite obviously.
2. Petr Mrazek, Bishop’s counterpart, did everything asked of him in three games. Well, if Mrazek was hurt down the stretch in the regular season when Jimmy Howard was granted five consecutive starts in a ten-day span, he sure miraculously recovered as of last Sunday to give the Red Wings goaltending I don’t believe they get from Jimmy Howard. Was Howard the “reason” the Red Wings lost either Game 1 or Game 2. No, not necessarily. Small sample size alert and all that, but Mrazek’s post-season save percentage finishes at .945, while Howard is at .891 (ahead of only three other postseason goalies — Devan Dubnyk, Antti Rantta, and Steve Mason). I don’t feel the Red Wings gave their team the obvious “best chance to win” by starting Howard, and the risk wasn’t near the same as last season going into the playoffs when Mike Babcock insisted on starting Mrazek ahead of Jimmy Howard. I’ve written it before – Mrazek is the future and needs to play even more than 49 starts he got this season under Jeff Blashill. For the record, Mrazek was 20th in “goalie starts” in the NHL this past season. Goalies not nearly as skilled as he is like Craig Anderson, Cam Talbot, and Semyen Varlamov got more time in the net this season.
3. After not being very good in Game 4, I thought Henrik Zetterberg was excellent in Game 5. This is how it may go for Zetterberg over the next couple seasons — looking like there might not be much hockey excellence left in the tank, to being a pretty consistent and engaged scoring threat, which he was last night. Zetterberg has always thrived on big playoff moments, and like Sergei Fedorov before him, not all fans pay proper homage to the work he does as a checking forward limiting chances on his own net. The only point Zetterberg had in the series was the ramshackle goal he scored in Game 3 off both his skates (one of those fun double-review goals!), but it’s not to say he had a bad series. He led the Red Wings with an unusually high +16 in Corsi rating last night. The bigger question he might have, and others around him might have, is whether his 137th career playoff game is his last one until next spring, his last one for a couple seasons, or even his last one ever.
4. Pavel Datsyuk leaves the Red Wings with a playoff series of unremarkable moments. No points for Datsyuk in a series in which he had nearly ninety-two minutes of ice time, including over twenty on the powerplay (either 5v4, or 5v3). It’s the first time Datsyuk has been goosed in a playoff series since the Red Wings were defending Cup champions and were swept by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. That year, the Red Wings scored 6 goals in 4 games, but with all the extra overtime play (they lost G1 in triple OT, G4 in the first OT), they finished with a paltry 1.23 goals/60 minutes. This year’s Red Wings didn’t do much better scoring 1.6 goals/60 minutes, with eight in five games. Datsyuk’s paid to be productive, takes ice time as a 37-year old that could really benefit younger players, and had a disappointing and disengaged series. He may indeed, as many are speculating, be regretting being so open with Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom about his pending (and almost certain) departure to move back to Russia to be closer to his daughter, and play for a notably fatter paycheck in the KHL. If the open secret of his leaving hurt his play, that’s sort of a “him” thing and he needed to move past it. If he’s simply unable to give much more as a Red Wing than he was able because of where he’s at physically, given the chronic and agonizing injuries he’s had in the last 4-5 years, then it’s not going to be the absence from the Red Wings lineup many think it will be. Yes, they are better with him than without — but not to the extent that this is like a 2009 or 2010 Pavel Datsyuk leaving the Red Wings. This series documented how far Datsyuk is from that level of excellence, and also how uphill the battle is against faster and/or bigger opponents, often a decade-and-a-half younger than he is. If he was a pending UFA, I understand that Red Wings’ supporters wouldn’t want to see him in another NHL uniform — of course, they wouldn’t. But if he was that, and simply decided to go back to the KHL with no salary cap implications for the Red Wings next season, I really think less Red Wings fans than two weeks ago would think it was a terrible thing for the immediate future of the franchise.
5. The Red Wings have a full-blown goal scoring crisis on their hands going forward. It’s way too early to have a firm opinion on the Red Wings’ ability to keep their playoff streak going and make the postseason in 2017, but this isn’t even a debate: they can’t score in the postseason, so is there really all that much point in making the playoffs? In cases of younger and developing teams, I’m not a “tank” guy unless the scenario is drastic. It was helpful for a team like the Flames last season, or obviously the Panthers this year to let many of their players get that postseason taste for the first time, and to flourish while there. Make some noise when you do so — don’t just settle for the participant ribbon. But the Red Wings didn’t have a game this postseason where they even scored three goals — and in their past 21 playoff games, they’ve been held to two or less goals a remarkable SEVENTEEN times. Some of the signs for this postseason were there given the team was 23rd in goals scored, but you aren’t winning playoff series scoring so rarely. Have the Red Wings run into very good and proven playoff goalies playing quite well? Of course, look who’s eliminated them since 2012 — Pekka Rinne, Corey Crawford, Tuukka Rask, and now Ben Bishop twice. Despite yearly fluctuations in numbers that do transpire, most hockey observers would suggest those four are safely in the Top 10 goalies on the planet. But there’s no inclination that the Red Wings can change their lack of output any playoff series soon.
6. Scoring in the regular seasons upcoming should be a concern also. This statistic will shock-and-awe you to considerable degrees — this past season is the first Red Wings’ full season (not counting 48-game years in 2005 and 2013) since 1945-46 where the Red Wings haven’t had a 25-goal scorer, and back then, they played only 70 games! That said, in almost any other year than this — Dylan Larkin is a certain Calder Trophy finalist after leading the Wings with 23 goals in 80 games, all at the age of 19. But what to make of slippage by Nyquist and Tatar. Tatar slipped from 29 goals to 21, and Nyquist 27 to 17 — both had healthy 80+ game seasons. Was Nyquist’s 2013-14 (27 goals in 58 games) far more the exception rather than the coming rule for him? His inconsistency and droughts were maddening this season. But the Red Wings have to count on those two considerably for next year and beyond given the lack of secondary scoring among their veterans, plus losing Datsyuk, plus another year of wear and tear on Zetterberg.
7. The Kronwall/Ericsson pairing wasn’t Detroit’s worst blueline combo in Game 5. Not even close. I get it, you want to yell about the Swedes, and I’m down with that. Your moment is coming, but not before I explain how either jittery or overwhelmed the Kyle Quincey/Danny DeKeyser duo was. In almost 12 minutes of icetime as a 5v.5 pairing, they posted a 30.56 CF%, and were on the ice for 9 scoring chances against, and 3 for. I’m a big fan of DeKeyser’s, but given that was almost certainly Kyle Quincey’s final game as a Red Wing before seeking dollars and a new address in unrestricted free agency, it’s a pairing you won’t be wishing stuck together next season. I’m interested in where all this goes with DeKeyser — what he is and is going to be. Those hoping his 31-point full season last year would boost up to a 38-42 point season were disappointed, in that he was another in-form, peak performance-age player who saw scoring numbers decline on this Red Wings team, down to 20 points (assists dropping from 29 to 12!), and his puck-possession stats took a negative dip as well.
8. THAT goal. I know, I know. There’s much to scream about. A simple chip-in for the Lightning. No urgency from Kronwall to hold his man up legally along the boards, Mrazek leaves the net (as he should) to play the puck, and Ericsson for some inexplicable reason, BESIDES the fact he’s ERICSSON, makes three fatal errors: he’s too far away on the boards for Mrazek’s dish not potentially to be intercepted, his feet are absolutely still, meaning if he gets the puck stolen, he’ll be slow (slower than usual) to react to the turnover, and he turns his body just enough away from where the puck is headed to let Ryan Callahan sneak the puck away and push it towards the net for the Alex Killorn GWG. Kronwall even had a late opportunity to just slow Callahan up a touch and didn’t. Ericsson could have actually held position in the front of the net and didn’t. It was a disastrous moment from the pairing, who had an awful Game 4, but not a bad Game 5 in the least, until then. Either way, both players will be back as Red Wings, I’m certain. At a combined $9 million on the cap, contributing very little offence with Ericsson finishing off a season where the drumbeats have never been louder for him to play less, or not to play at all, and with Kronwall’s skills eroding as he heads into his late 30’s, with a contract guaranteed until he is nearly 39 years of age.
9. Sorry, no kids allowed. It was a running theme, and it needs an explanation, other than the fact Ken Holland and Jeff Blashill have important jobs and a high amount of accomplishments respectively running, and coaching hockey teams. The Red Wings power-play sputtered in hilariously awful fashion in the series, and for the last few games of the regular season. Only fitting the game ended with six Red Wings skaters, four of whom are in the absolute twilights of their NHL careers, and none being Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, or even Anthony Mantha. Let’s remember — Mantha scored two power play goals for the Red Wings in a four game span. He played two more games and was summarily shipped off to Grand Rapids to await the AHL playoffs. I want this clear — Mantha scored more PP goals in a four game span than the entire Red Wings team did over the next ten hockey games. You have ONE chance to tie the game and force overtime and neither Larkin nor Athanasiou were on the ice in that last minute. Even the biggest defenders of Holland and the “Red Wings way” and there are so, so many here in Canada who think he walks on water as a general manager, found the deployment of players utterly embarrassing in this series. Welcome in, some of us have spotted concerning trends for quite a while, even among all the excellent moves Holland has to get some credit for.
10. A few Red Wings obviously won’t be Red Wings next season. I am assuming the Red Wings’ run, as noted above, for Kyle Quincey is now over. I believe so for Darren Helm as well. Quincey will have some NHL team sign him to a 4-year deal worth between $16-$18 million if the timing is right, and Helm will settle in at about $3.5/year over 3 years, maybe 4. I think that’s that for Brad Richards in Detroit. I don’t know if he plays out the string doing just one-year deals with teams, but I don’t think a return to Detroit is in the cards for an aging player whose buyout from the Rangers and his two Stanley Cup rings, would suggest he can be quite picky about future destinations. It was neither a good season, nor a bad season for Richards — it was just kind of there, but his playoffs, like so many Red Wings players, left so much to be desired. Many veteran players don’t find their “wings”, if you will, until after the first round of the playoffs, Richards had very productive runs in three of the last four springs — last year with Chicago, and twice with the Rangers after signing their massive offer in Summer 2011. As for a larger shakeup, let’s save that for another day. I do believe Howard is very difficult to trade, so is Ericsson, and at this point, so are Zetterberg and Kronwall. You could really change a lot more than a layer of paint in the Red Wings room if you shipped away all three Swedes to one destination, or a couple. There are enough signs, and there’s enough evidence, as I’ve noted that the Swedes run that room. What they say goes — they’re Dalton in “Road House”. The kind of influence that keeps Jonathan Ericsson in the lineup ahead of Brendan Smith, and Joakim Andersson ahead of Anthony Mantha. I’m not telling you Holland and Blashill don’t have acute awareness of this, and fully-functioning minds of their own, but this IS an issue. Don’t believe anyone suggesting it isn’t. We shall see where it goes.
That’s a lot to write about a series with just 10 Red Wing goals in five games — and a likely ending to Pavel Datsyuk’s Red Wings career that we all saw coming, maybe just not with as little artillery being fired back in the opposite direction. More, no question, next week on the post-mortem of these 2015-16 Red Wings. I’m at @gbradyradio on Twitter, and newly-formed at @gregfbrady on Instagram.