DETROIT — The season was a tale of two halves for the Red Wings, none more aware of that than goalie Jimmy Howard who started with an All-Star worthy opening only to be slated as a backup down the stretch.
At the All-Star break, the Wings were two points out of first place in the Eastern Conference having won eight of their last 10 games. Conversely, Howard had a 16-7-7 record with a 2.11 goals-against average, fueling the team’s run near the top of the conference in the early stages of the schedule.
A lingering groin issue would sideline Howard for the next five weeks and while 23-year-old Petr Mrazek filled in quite admirably with a 9-2-0 record, it was clear that the team would not be the same as they moved forward with a dispute in net.
“It’s tough, you know everything was going really well prior to that point,” Howard said. “We do a job where injuries happen and you can’t use them as an excuse one bit. I’m not gonna use it as an excuse. When you come back and you’re healthy, you need to perform and I didn’t.”
As Howard and Mrazek traded starts between the pipes for the last month of the regular season, other facets of the Wings’ game seemed to take change as well.
A penalty-killing unit that started the season a perfect 21-of-21 through the first seven games of the schedule seemed unbreakable until January. In the first 12 games after the New Year, the PK would kill off just 65 percent (26-of-40) of its shorthanded opportunities and allowed multiple power-play goals on three separate occasions during that stretch.
Without warning, a team that was once in the driver’s seat of the Atlantic Division quickly fell into a highly contested Wild Card race.
One week to go, the Wings were in a three-way tie with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins with 95 points and a surging Ottawa Senators team just three points behind. With four games in seven days, the Wings collected five of a possible eights points to claim a third-place finish in the Atlantic, eliminating the Bruins from the postseason and outbidding the Sens — who won six of their last seven games — by one point.
In the playoffs for a 24th consecutive season, the Wings’ playoff streak remained in tact but a tough draw against the NHL’s top-scoring team in the Tampa Bay Lightning would do them next to no favors.
Considered outmatched by many and a severe underdog, Mrazek would be named the starter in goal for the Wings and the rookie stole the show quite literally.
With 44 saves in Game 1 and shutouts in Game 3 and Game 5, coach Mike Babcock’s decision to go with the young goalie paid off and gave his team a chance to upset the heavily favored Lightning.
Mrazek neutralized the NHL’s most dangerous offense, but it would be the Wings offense that failed as the season hung in the balance.
Having already defeated the league’s best home team in Tampa not once, but twice, the Wings would need a third win on the road in Game 7. After flirting with fire squandering a two-goal lead in Game 4 and failing to eliminate the Lightning in Game 6, the team would finally be burned in the last game of the series as the Wings were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the second time in as many seasons.
“I think from Game 3, we played a good series and we stole the first game,” forward Henrik Zetterberg said. “I think you look back at Game 7, we played the way we wanted to, we stuck to our structure, we couldn’t really get it done offensively in that game. When they got their first, when they scored first obviously they got the momentum but still after that we kept going, we created chances but we couldn’t find a way.”
With the season over in Detroit, many questions arise about the future of the organization in regards to the coach and players. Babcock’s contract expires in June and veterans continue to roll down the backside of a career slope.
“It’s another wasted year almost you know, any way you look at it you wanna be standing there in June,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “When you don’t, especially to go out like this, it’s always frustrating to lose but this one is way different I thought than last year just because it felt like we had something really good going. You know what, they ended up winning in seven games and they’re playing and we’re not.”
Members of the leadership — Zetterberg (34-years old), Kronwall (34) and Pavel Datsyuk (36) — will grow another year older, only increasing the pressure on young players like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan and Danny DeKeyser to blossom into significant roles on the roster.
“I think it’s looking good, you know our younger guys keep pushing,” Kronwall said. “They’re gonna take another step over the summer. I think they were better than they were the year before. So the younger guys are gonna get even better and we’re gonna be even better as a team next year because of it. So we just gotta keep pushing.”