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Henrik Zetterberg wants more for Red Wings

Detroit captain has eyes on Stanley Cup, not just making playoffs

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TORONTO -- Henrik Zetterberg wants to make something clear: The Detroit Red Wings won't be satisfied to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 26th consecutive season.

"If we make the postseason, we automatically continue the streak, but we're not really playing for the streak," the Red Wings forward said. "We're playing to have a chance to win the Cup."

That might seem crazy, considering the Red Wings sit second-to-last in the Atlantic Division before they play the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic at Exhibition Stadium on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV). They will need a turnaround just to extend the streak. No one considers them Cup contenders anymore.

But that is the defiant attitude of Zetterberg, who succeeded legends Nicklas Lidstrom and Steve Yzerman as Red Wings captain, and it speaks to the mindset of the organization as it faces what could be the end of an era. 

To be sure, there is pride in the streak itself. No other team has made the playoffs every season since the salary cap was introduced in 2005-06, let alone since 1990-91. No one takes making the playoffs for granted. At least no one should in a league defined by parity. The streak might not be fully appreciated until after it ends.

Video: Red Wings practice at Exhibition Stadium

"You don't want to be a part of a team that doesn't make it," Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said.

The thing is, making the playoffs is not enough. Detroit has lost in the first round three years in a row and four times in the past five years, and the Red Wings have held themselves to a much higher standard, winning the Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008, going to the Final in 1995 and 2009 as well.

"Obviously we want to make the postseason," Zetterberg said. "It would be really, really, really disappointing if we don't. But the streak, I think there's been a little bit too much talk about that the last few years. It's almost that we make the postseason to continue the streak and then kind of relax a little bit. That's what we want to get away from."

The Red Wings have been victims of their own success. They have been measured against their past more than against the rest of the NHL at times, and they have not drafted in the top 10 since 1991, eroding their top-end talent.

Some fans think the Red Wings should accept they aren't what they used to be. If they avoid veterans, the younger players can gain more experience. If they fall out of the playoffs, they can select higher in the draft and replenish their top-end talent.

On some level, Kronwall understands.

"They're used to the Detroit Red Wings winning," Kronwall said. "I have all the respect for that. We're used to that too."

But owner Mike Ilitch bought the team in 1982 when it was one of the worst in the NHL. The Red Wings spent decades building a winning culture. General manager Ken Holland doesn't want to tear it down until he has to, because he knows how long a rebuild can take. Zetterberg and Kronwall are going to try to keep upholding the standard even when the team isn't living up to it, maybe especially when the team isn't living up to it.

Zetterberg is 36. Kronwall will turn 36 on Jan. 12. Each has spent his entire NHL career with the Red Wings, Zetterberg since 2002-03, Kronwall since 2003-04.

"I always wanted to be a part of one team if possible," Kronwall said. "So far I've been fortunate to have that opportunity. I think you get even more heart and soul for that team and for the organization -- not only that, with the fans, with the community. There's so much else that goes into it than just the hockey part."

Video: BUF@DET: Zetterberg snaps puck home off Lehner's mask

They feel the responsibility to follow the example set by Lidstrom, Yzerman and so many others.

"When we came in, we had all the guys that had been here for so long," Zetterberg said. "We saw their passion. We saw how they tried to give that to the younger players. We are those guys now that have to give it to the guys that's going to steer the ship when we're gone."

They do not want to go quietly.

"I'm not done yet, even though some nights I feel I am," Zetterberg said with a laugh. "I don't think any player wants to go through a rebuild or a tank or whatever you call it. You want to win games. You don't want to go out and lose games.

"You tank and you're not winning for a few years, it's almost like you're not supposed to win. I, as a player, would never be able to go through that, where if you lose, it's not that bad. As long as I'm here, we will never have it. 

"It comes from the top. It comes from the Ilitches. It comes from Ken Holland. We have a certain tradition here, and that's going to live on."

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