ANAHEIM, Calif. – As injuries mounted and change took shape with the Red Wings roster this season, many outside of the team predicted that Hockeytown was on a collision course with the apocalypse.
In their minds, there wasn’t a snowballs chance in H-E-double-hockey-sticks that the Red Wings were going to make the playoffs in a year with so much transition. The retirements of legendary defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and net-front guru Tomas Holmstrom, and the loss of Brad Stuart were big obstacles. But overcoming the unavoidable doom of early-season injuries was perceived as insurmountable.
How could this team complete? They went the entire season without Darren Helm, whom coach Mike Babcock has often referred to as the best third-line center in the league. The defensive six was supposed to be the team’s Achilles’ heel, only made worse by lengthy injuries to Kyle Quincey, rookie Brendan Smith and newcomer Carlo Colaiacovo.
Reaching the playoffs for a 22nd straight season was going to be a stretch … at best.
Yet through it all, one man has stood before the microphones and notepads to calm the waters, whether it was after a cataclysmic loss to Calgary or a must-win game at Dallas to secure a playoff berth on the season’s final game.
In his first season as the Red Wings’ 36th captain in franchise history, Henrik Zetterberg has been that man, as well as their outstanding role model for such young stars as Joakim Andersson, Damien Brunner, Danny DeKeyser, Gustav Nyquist, and Smith.
It was Zetterberg who almost single-handedly willed the Red Wings into the playoffs, leading them to four straight victories to close out the season last month. And Friday, in an elimination game, it was Zetterberg again. His leadership skills rose above all else as he scored two goals, including the winner in overtime that forced Game 7.
“He’s always been one of those guys. He’s the son of a coach,” Babcock said. “Lots of good players just do what they do and don’t have any clue. He knows what he’s doing and what everyone else should be doing. He’s a calm influence, who stands up for the players and himself. (He’s) ultra-competitive and you know he’s going to play good tonight. You just know.”
Babcock knows that Zetterberg, along with Datsyuk, will play central figures in tonight’s Game 7 to determine whether it’s the Red Wings or the Anaheim Ducks who are moving on to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. And why wouldn’t they? Zetterberg has five points in the last two games, six in the series. Datsyuk, who has two goals and five assists, is the only other player in series with more points than the Wings’ captain.
When it has mattered most, Zetterberg’s game has always ascended to a level above most of his NHL peers. Just look at what the former Conn Smythe winner has consistently done in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Zetterberg’s 53 goals and 108 points in 115 career playoff games ranks No. 5 all-time in club history, and his plus-39 is a team-high among all-time forwards.
But over the last three weeks, the captain has worn the ‘C’ on his jersey like Superman wears the ‘S’ on his chest. Zetterberg has 16 points in the last 10 games, including game-winning goals in the most important games – the season-finale in Dallas and Friday’s Game 6 at Joe Louis Arena.
“That to me is what leadership is about,” Babcock said. “Not so much what you say, it’s what you do, and I think he’s a great role model for our guys.”
When it comes to speaking his mind, the 32-year-old Zetterberg is probably more like Steve Yzerman than his fellow countryman Lidstrom. Zetterberg isn’t afraid to tell it like it is, and because of that – coupled with his immense talent – he garners plenty of respect from everyone in the Wing’ locker room.
“He and I have a relationship where he doesn’t mind getting mad at me and I don’t mind getting mad at him,” Babcock said, earlier this season. “I don’t have any problem with that. He doesn’t mind standing up for the guys and telling you want he thinks. And I think that’s so important for us.”
It doesn’t hurt when Zetterberg takes over a game, either, last he did Friday night. But that’s what leadership does when the game is on the line. They make the difference and avert disaster.
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose