The Detroit Red Wings are one of those teams that puts the goal of winning the Stanley Cup out there and doesn't shy away from it.
This year wasn't much different, but Detroit's season of promise in 2011-12 -- which at one point saw the Red Wings set the record for most consecutive wins at home in NHL history (23) -- ended far short of the ultimate goal. It took the Nashville Predators, a rival from the Central Division, just five games to put Detroit's dreams of a 12th Stanley Cup on ice.
"Right now, your thoughts aren't really there," defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "Right now it's just an empty feeling. Very disappointed, not only myself but the way our team started the game. We have to be a lot better than that, show a lot more pride than that.''
Here are the five biggest reasons the Red Wings couldn't finish as champions:
1 . Injuries added up
The Red Wings were rolling. They were cranking out home victories during a lengthy homestand and skimming along at the top of the Western Conference. Then things started unraveling on Feb. 19 -- a Sunday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena, in which Detroit found a way to outlast the rival San Jose Sharks for their 23rd straight home win.
Afterward, star center Pavel Datsyuk felt something wasn't right in his knee. It led to arthroscopic knee surgery and he was out for three weeks (11 straight games). Datsyuk never appeared to regain his
typical level of play. Datsyuk was also just the first of many Red Wings regulars to miss extended time down the stretch.
Lidstrom's decision looms large
Just like the past two years, the biggest question for the Detroit Red Wings in the offseason pertains to 41-year old star captain Nicklas Lidstrom.
Will he or won't he retire?
There's a good chance that even he doesn't know if a 2-1 season-ending loss Friday night in Game 5 of a Western Conference Quarterfinal series at Bridgestone Arena was his last NHL game.
"I'm going to take a few weeks here and I'm sure [Red Wings general manager Ken Holland] wants to sit down and kind of go over things, as well. I'll see what he wants to do and what timetable he'll give for me to make a decision."
Is he leaning in any direction?
"Not right now," Lidstrom said. "Right now it's just disappointment at losing in the playoffs."
The Lidstrom storyline, however, will have some company. Holland has a lot of money freed up regardless of what Lidstrom decides, and will tack on another $6.2 million if the captain retires.
Holland's cap space could theoretically climb as high as $20 million should Detroit's five unrestricted free agents hit the market or retire and the pending NHL free-agent class could have several impact players. New Jersey forward Zach Parise and Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter are the top players who could be on the market.
Even if Lidstrom returns, Holland will have space to make a splash – and after getting just two home playoff games, look for the Red Wings to be active and aggressive.
-- Brian Hedger
The list reached almost half the roster at one point and included 41-year-old star captain Nicklas Lidstrom, who missed a career-high 11 straight games because of a deep bone bruise in his ankle after taking a hard shot off it Feb. 25 against Colorado.
Goalie Jimmy Howard also had injury issues in the last half of the season and speedy third-line center Darren Helm missed the last nine games of the regular season with a knee sprain before severing tendons in his right forearm in the first playoff game. The list of banged-up players was long and ultimately disastrous for Detroit's Cup hopes.
"I sure thought prior to our injuries we had a good group, we were playing hard and playing well," coach Mike Babcock said. "But I don't think we ever scored again after we lost Darren Helm. We lost a ton of guys at that time, but Helmer gave us … we won a lot of games because our third line was flat out better and wore down the other team and kept coming. He's a huge part of our team. You can say they didn't have Gill, you have injuries, that's hockey. But we didn't have enough to overcome it. We're not as deep as we used to be, that's very apparent."
2. Road Worriers
The Red Wings hovered just below the .500 level in road games almost all season before finishing just 17-21-3 away from home.
That was a stark difference from their 31-7-3 mark at the "Joe."
Babcock seemed as stumped as anybody. Some theorize the "matchup game" between the benches worked against the Wings on the road. Opposing coaches with the last line change could exploit certain matchups and the Wings were often unable to overcome it. At home, Detroit's coaching staff got the last change and the advantage.
In 2010-11, the trend was just the opposite. The Red Wings fared pretty well on the road and sputtered somewhat at their home rink. Still, it was two straight losses at home against Nashville this past week that put them in a 3-1 hole they couldn't escape.
3. Powerless power play
When the Red Wings are at their best, they usually have one of the League's most lethal power plays. Opposing teams are usually pretty nervous about putting Detroit on the power play, but this season was a little different.
Detroit finished 21st overall in power-play success rate and scored on just eight of 67 man-advantage situations in the final 20 games of the regular season (11.9 percent). That number improved in the playoffs, but the Wings still faltered at key times.
A good example was in the pivotal Game 4, which the Red Wings lost at home by a 3-1 score. Detroit went just 1-for-7 on the power play in that game.
4. Eleven games that took it from bad to worse
Not all injuries carry the same weight and the Red Wings found this out the hard way.
Just three games after losing Datsyuk to minor knee surgery, captain Nicklas Lidstrom got hurt in a Feb. 25 loss at home to the Colorado Avalanche. As it turned out, Lidstrom had a painful ankle bruise that kept him out those 11 straight games.
That really seemed to send things into a tailspin, as Detroit went just 3-6-2 in those games.
Lidstrom does a multitude of things. He's the main leader and spokesman of the locker room. He's a model of consistency in work habits and play and his vast experience brings a calming effect. Without him around, the impact was felt.
5. Time keeps on ticking ...
They've been hearing it for a couple years, but this time it looks like the Red Wings really are showing the effects of age.
Pavel Datsyuk is still a magician with the puck, but he'll be 34 next season and already had to have the in-season knee surgery to fix a wear-and-tear issue. Danny Cleary, who's 33, saw his production
plummet with his own knee issue -- painful Baker's Cysts behind his knee that he needed to have drained a couple of times.
Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg are both 31, Johan Franzen is 32 and if Lidstrom returns, he'll turn 42 next year. Tomas Holmstrom, who might contemplate retirement, is 39 and all those hacks and whacks he's taken as a netfront pest have taken a toll.
There is some youth already on the roster and in the system, but Detroit's core group of stars is largely north of 30 and the Wings usually don't tap into their system until prospects are "over ripe" and approaching their mid-20s.
Age wasn't the main factor that gave the younger Predators the series, but Babcock's comments after Game 5 on Friday night -- about not having enough top-six forward depth and the series not being close -- were both striking and telling.
"We made the playoffs 21 years in a row, got 100 points 12 years in a row, we won a ton of playoff games [and] we've been in it every year. But when you look at our group now, we've had a second round knockout, a second round knockout and a first-round knockout, so to me that doesn't look like you're going in the right direction. I think if you do to once or twice … but to me the indication isn't right.
"One thing about it is we're going to have lots of time and we'll be able to get it figured out what we need to do because I don't think we're very interested in scratching and clawing to make the playoffs. That's never been the approach we've had. We like to win."