DETROIT – While it was reminiscent of the final day of high school, the locker room on clean-out day at Joe Louis Arena Tuesday afternoon was anything but joyous.
As Red Wings’ players posed for the team photo, exchanged hockey sticks with one another, and packed up their belongings before heading home for a longer than usual summer, the weight of being eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs still cast a doleful mood on the room.
“I think everybody is a little depressed because we didn’t do as well as we thought we would do,” rookie defenseman Brandan Smith said. “Going out in the first round and how we did it is really tough. It’s a little frustrating that way, but at the same time I think some guys are happy to go home and see their families.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling and saying your goodbyes is never great anyways.”
Neither is losing in the first round of the playoffs, which is foreign to the Wings’ organization. But for the third consecutive spring, the Wings didn’t reach the conference finals, which they had done in each of the three previous seasons, including 2008 and ’09 when they reach the Stanley Cup finals.
The playoffs are the measuring stick used by the Wings, who have qualified for an NHL record 21-straight postseason appearances. No other franchise in the four major North American sports – including Major League Baseball, National Football League and National Basketball Association – has come close to matching the Wings’ dominance.
Obviously, injuries in the final quarter of the regular-season played a significant factor in the Wings’ playoff preparedness. It’s hard not to regain that mid-season continuity late in the season and into the opening round of the playoffs when so many pieces weren’t playing at 100 percent. Guys like Nicklas Lidstrom (ankle), Pavel Datsyuk (knee), Danny Cleary (knee), Patrick Eaves (concussion), Todd Bertuzzi (groin), Darren Helm (knee), Jonathan Ericsson (wrist), Johan Franzen (lower back), Jakub Kindl (oblique), Jimmy Howard (groin) and Joey MacDonald (sciatica) all dealt with late-season injuries that forced them to miss games.
“I thought our injuries late in the year hurt us,” said Lidstrom, who missed 11 games with a badly bruised right ankle. “We weren't able to get back up to speed and we didn't fully recovery.”
That certainly was evident in the first round series against the Nashville Predators. The Wings were out-scored in the series 13-9 overall, and 9-4 when both teams were at even-strength.
“We needed to score more goals,” center Henrik Zetterberg said. “At the end of the year we didn't play as good as we usually do. Look at our last 20 regular-season games we didn't have our best record. Some has to do with injuries, but we have to be better. We had a good stretch at home here, but we didn’t play well enough on the road. It was little things. I think every guy has to be a little bit better. If every guy chips in a little more we would be that much better.
“Injuries hurt us, even though we had players that came in and played really well. I think it eats up on other players that had to play more minutes. It hurts you, but I don't think that's the whole answer, but I don't think we know the whole answer either.”
Some answers may come this summer once the NHL’s free agency period begins on July 1. The Wings have five players – Lidstrom, defenseman Brad Stuart, forwards Jiri Hudler and Tomas Holmstrom and backup goalie Ty Conklin – who can become unrestricted free agents.
Lidstrom and Holmstrom won’t sign anywhere else, so their futures with the club are still uncertain, and while some of teammates have thoughts on whether the pair will return for another season or retire only time will tell.
“I've got a gut feeling, but I'm going to keep that (to) myself,” said Zetterberg, when asked about Lidstrom’s future. “I had a gut feeling last year too and it turned out to be right so we'll see in a month or so.
“In the end we hope it'll be a nice decision. He'll do what he needs to do. It's a big commitment to make if he's mentally prepared to come back too. Everyone hope he's going to make that commitment.”
Regardless of what the roster looks like next season, Tuesday was an unsavory time for the players who may have said their final goodbyes.
“Even if you know you won’t be playing with a guy you’ll still see him on a different team, so you always have that friendship,” forward Drew Miller said. “But it’s not a good day. It’s only a good day when you win. It’s definitely one of those days that you deal with and get it over with. You pack everything up and say your goodbyes.”
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose