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Henrik Zetterberg's motor still humming

Even with Red Wings' playoff streak about to end, 36-year-old captain keeps pushing forward

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

DETROIT -- When the Detroit Red Wings announced Henrik Zetterberg would be their captain, they waited for the right moment. They assembled the entire organization at training camp in January 2013 so everyone could see and hear. It wasn't about news as much as it was about continuity and culture.

Zetterberg was taking over for Nicklas Lidstrom, "The Perfect Human," who had taken over from Steve Yzerman, "The Captain," who had revived the legacy of Sid Abel, Red Kelly, Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio.

"More than anything," Zetterberg said then, "this is a big responsibility."

And a big challenge. The Red Wings' streak of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs was already 21 seasons old. How much longer could it really last? How could Zetterberg uphold the tradition?

Now here we are, more than four years later. The streak is finally about to end at 25, with the Red Wings 15th in the Eastern Conference and all but eliminated entering their game against the Minnesota Wild on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET; NBC, NHL.TV). But it isn't because of Zetterberg, who has done everything he can to uphold the tradition during the hardest of times.

Video: TBL@DET: Zetterberg tallies with fluttering shot

Zetterberg scored his 325th NHL goal in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday, moving past Norm Ullman for sixth on the Red Wings' all-time list. He trails Howe (786), Yzerman (692), Delvecchio (456), Sergei Fedorov (400) and Lindsay (335).

Zetterberg has 61 points, 22 more than any teammate. No one in the NHL leads his team in scoring by a larger margin. He has done it with the Red Wings having the second-worst power play in the League. He ranks seventh in the NHL in even-strength points with 50. He's plus-15 on a team with a minus-34 goal differential.

"He's having a fabulous year, and I think it speaks to his will, his determination, his passion for the game, his pride for the team," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "He's going down with a fight."

Zetterberg has every reason to be in decline now. He had back surgery in 2014. He struggled at the end of last season, with nine points (one goal, eight assists) and a minus-18 rating in his final 24 regular-season games and one goal in five playoff games. He was unable to captain Team Sweden in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 because of a knee injury.

The game is getting faster and younger; Zetterberg was never fast in the first place and is 36 years old. Entering this season, coach Jeff Blashill planned to reduce Zetterberg's minutes. He started him on the wing so he wouldn't have to skate as much.

But after two games, Blashill moved Zetterberg back to center, and as the season went on, Zetterberg's performance demanded heavy minutes against top opponents. Whomever Blashill put on his wing, he made them better.

"The competitiveness is what separates him more than anything else," Blashill said. "He's just got a burning desire to be great."

This is a guy who was selected in the seventh round (No. 210) of the 1999 NHL Draft, didn't come over from his native Sweden until 2002, at age 22. He became one of the best two-way centers in the game, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy when the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2008 and playing just as well the following year when they came within one victory of winning it again.

Video: DET@ARI: Zetterberg buries a wrister from the circle

Speed is important, but so are strength and hockey sense. Zetterberg is incredibly strong on his edges and hard to knock off the puck. He doesn't fly north-south but weaves east-west, focusing not on what he can't do but on what he can.

"It's more being in the right spots and using the other guys' speed and trying to find them when they're flying, and then I can catch up to them in a few seconds," Zetterberg said with a laugh. "There's been a lot of talk lately that the centermen need to have speed and fly up and down the ice. In my view, it's the center who controls the speed."

Red Wings center Dylan Larkin compared Zetterberg to Andrea Pirlo, the Italian soccer player who "just slows it down and plays the way he plays and then puts out the perfect pass and just feeds his linemates. He's a field general. He dictates the pace of play."

Zetterberg never cheats defense for offense, yet still produces offensively.

"He's really content if nothing happens in 59 of the minutes played in the game," Larkin said. "He always says, 'Be patient. Be patient. Wait for that one chance, or two chances on one shift where you can get a break and break them down.' That's his discipline. That's how he thinks. It's amazing."

Upset by the way he finished last season, Zetterberg set out to be more consistent this season. He adjusted his training regimen to give himself more energy. Skipping the World Cup allowed him to enter the season healthy, and he has felt good physically. Relatively, anyway. Zetterberg said he and defenseman Niklas Kronwall, also 36, joke every day about the younger players looking fresh every morning.

"Me and Kronner look at each other and wonder how we're going to make it out to the ice," Zetterberg said with a smile.

Video: NYI@DET: Zetterberg buries PPG with 0.1 on the clock

All season, Zetterberg has insisted the Red Wings didn't want to continue the streak for the sake of it but to compete for the Cup, that they were a good team when they played up to their potential, that they can turn it around, if not this season, then next season. He has set an example for younger players the way Yzerman and Lidstrom once set an example for him.

"When you get older, you realize that you're getting closer to the end," Zetterberg said. "You want to take advantage of all the days you have left here. This is a special place, and to be able to play for this club and done it for that long, you want to keep going, and you want to be able to do it well."

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