Detroit Red Wings Season Ends: 5 Things That We Learned in the Playoffs
The Detroit Red Wings lost Game 7 last night, and while they didn't make the kind of history they intended, they still made a lot of noise.
Still, it's hard not to feel a little empty after coming so close.
So instead of pining over what could have been, I'd like to take a look back through the last couple of weeks and examine some things we learned about the Wings personnel. Believe it or not, through this loss, we can derive quite a bit of insight into the future of the team.
Sure, this season ended a bit early for my liking, but I see plenty of reason to be optimistic going into 2012 (granted there is one). Here are five things we learned about the Wings through their two rounds of playoff action.
Jimmy Howard Is the Goaltender the Wings Have Needed
This is the first playoff run in a long time where I can't remember hearing a Red Wing goaltenders' name before the phrase "soft goal."
Chris Osgood was always clutch, but the Wings have had their fair share of goaltending questions (I wouldn't go so far as to call them issues) throughout the last few years. No one was particularly high on how Jim performed in take one against the Sharks in his first playoff appearance last year.
My goodness, was he good.
I realized how comfortable I had become with Howard in net for the Wings during the third period of Game 7 against the Sharks. Usually, my feeling would be that Detroit needed to play pretty flawless defense to keep the game close. But they were all pinching instead. Kronwall, Stuart and even Salei were pushing up into the slot with confidence, gunning for the game-tying goal.
All the while, I wasn't nervous about the puck going the other way—at least not because of the goaltender who would be trying to stop the oncoming rush.
Because Jimmy Howard was good when he needed to be good, great when he needed to be great and is arguably the first and foremost reason the Wings managed to push the Sharks to a Game 7. Read: This would have never happened with Manny Legace in net. No way, no how.
Howard has all the tools needed to begin building a legacy (no play on words intended there, swear. These things just happen naturally) and during this season and playoffs, he has begun to do just that.
There may be some questions heading into the 2012 season for the Wings, mostly surrounding some hapless blueliners' potential retirement. One place there won't be any doubt is in net.
Jimmy Howard has solidified himself as the man for Detroit.
Just in the Nik of Time: Kronwall Ascends
Nicklas Lidstrom is not a replaceable player, just as Steve Yzerman wasn't a few years ago.
But when iconic skaters like No. 19 and No. 5 decide to finally hang up the skates for good, it helps to be able to look down the remaining roster and find a player like Kronwall.
This point is tentative right now. More consistent play out of the great Kronwaller will be necessary before anointing him as the new keeper of Detroit's defensive zone. But facts are facts, and as the intensity and importance of games increased as the series against San Jose pressed on, Kronwall overtook Lidstrom in minutes played.
During these playoffs, we have seen the most complete version of Niklas Kronwall to date. He still can make huge hits like the one we saw on Clowe early in the series, but he is now much more dependable in his own end and continues to elevate his game on the power play.
He became a central cog with the extra man, with the Wings making plays to open up room for a sneaking Kronwall.
If his play can continue on this kind of upward curve, it will go a long way to help close the gap between the Lidstrom Era and the Lidstrom-less era.
The Kids Are All Right
Kris Draper is more than likely on his way out in Detroit. He has been an outright warrior for the Red Wings and done his fair share to deserve the heavy hand that he has due to all the rings adorning it.
With his imminent retirement, the Wings will have seen the last piece of the infamous Grind Line skate off into the sunset. Detroit fans shouldn't shed a tear for any reason outside of sentiment, however.
Because Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm are the new breed.
Abdelkader has been an agitating wrecking ball throughout these playoffs, and will only become more comfortable in his role. He drew the ire of Shane Doan in the first round and mostly every player on the Sharks roster during the second.
In fact, he led the NHL in PIMs due to his tenacious, obnoxious play. Detroit has always had grinders; it's been a while since they have had an outright pest. Abdelkader figures to change that. This isn't a guy who plays limited minutes though, and is solely on the team to agitate.
Darren Helm is phenomenal, tearing around the ice like a five-year-old who just inhaled a pound-and-a-half of Nerds or pancake syrup. He seems to be everywhere at once, and through the second round saw his ice time increase and Babcock played him in more situations.
Including the power play.
Helm used his speed to win races for loose pucks, dishing them back out to players such as the aforementioned Kronwall as they pushed further into the zone.
Put these two speedy, harass-the-hell-out-of-the-puck-carrier-until-he-turns-it-over players together and you have a formidable line of guys who can shut down as well as they can score. Get used to seeing these guys play together. I believe their futures are bright in the D.
And then there is Valtteri Filppula.
Is this guy for real?
Hard to tell right now, but we certainly saw some flashes of brilliance in these playoffs. He was fast, agile and smart. He shot when he should, hit the net and drove the crease when he needed to, looking for the dirty goals.
Most of all, he was clutch—totally clutch. Outside of Datsyuk, he was the most noticeable player for Detroit in the third period of all three of their come-from-behind victories. He skated like crazy and finally seems comfortable and confident enough to take the cap off and let his talent flow.
I really hope this translates to (finally) a breakout year for the kid. Because he was ballin' out of control against San Jose.
Jiri Hudler Is Useless
Perhaps I am being a bit unfair here, but my expectations for Hudler when he came back from the KHL were high. Not unreasonably so; I just expected him to be the same player he was when he left—a talented guy that can net you the better side of 55 points and dominate another teams' third line with his skill should that matchup occur.
But Jiri's return was gross.
He managed a measly 37 points during the regular season as he fell short of expectations and his sizable contract. Then Hudler did very little to endear himself to fans or coaches in the playoffs.
Three: That is the number of points Huds had in these playoffs, total.
Zero: That is the number of points Huds had against the Sharks in Round 2.
To make matters worse he inadvertently took off Dan Cleary's head towards the middle of Game 7, putting Detroit down two men as they had already lost Todd Bertuzzi.
Subsequently, Jiri finally got some ice time as the Wings tried to catch the Sharks yet again. My dream scenario? Hudler finds the back of the net to tie the game with under two minutes to play. All is forgiven and I can go back to hating Joe Thornton.
But Babcock must have seen something that he liked, because he had the forward out there when the Wings had pulled their goaltender while trying to tie the game late.
That something is something I must have missed.
The only Detroit player who couldn't hit the net in the second and third periods with consistency was Jiri Hudler. His shots rattled off the boards and usually ended up skittering out of the zone. Just terrible.
Jiri may just be my early scapegoat, but I don't think so. Following an abysmal regular season where nearly half of your points came during a point streak during the winter months with a case of the invisibles in the playoffs is not my idea of a return to grace.
I hope this guy gets his game together in the offseason, or else I'll be officially nicknaming him The Cap Drain.
The Prime Detroit Red Wings Are Not Old and Tired
This is always the strike against the Wings: That they are too old.
I doubt that anything short of every player over the age of 32 retiring this summer will silence those critics either. But it was the group's collective experience that allowed them to come back against the Sharks in the second round. It was that experience that gave them a chance to win every game, and saw them come back from several third-period deficits.
Let's just get the obvious out of the way: Pavel Datsyuk was the best player in the playoffs through the first two rounds, bar none.
(Yeah, that includes Ryan Kesler, who has been dropping jaws in Vancouver all season long.)
Datsyuk's majesty has already been chronicled in great detail elsewhere, so I'll spare you a 500-word rant about why he's been the most outstanding skater, and get to the point:
These guys still have gas left in the tank, and are not quite ready to come down off of their lofty primes.
Zetterberg showed his usual guts by playing through injury, and he really started to come on during Games 6 and 7 against the Sharks. In his last five games, he had scored twice (in Games 6 and 7) and had tallied seven points total.
Too bad it took him so long to get going.
The verdict? Detroit's early-30 superstars still have plenty of get-up-and-go. They were constantly noticeable and usually at the center of any positive offensive zone energy that the Wings were generating.
They may be growing old in hockey years, but I doubt anybody will be taking the Euro-twins lightly anytime soon.