By Ashley Dunkak
JOE LOUIS ARENA (CBS DETROIT) – With four games remaining in the regular season for the Detroit Red Wings, head coach Mike Babcock started his Monday media availability with a little levity, announcing gleefully that assistant coach Tom Renney lost the college basketball pool and would be buying dinner for all the coaches.
Who won the pool? Babcock grinned and said that the winner was beside the point.
“It doesn’t really matter as long as you don’t lose,” Babcock said with a smile. “It’s like going bear hunting. You take a slow guy with you in case the bear’s hungry, right? Take one guy slower and everything’s good.”
Babcock had plenty of reason to be in a good mood. In a season fraught with injuries, particularly ones that took stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg out of the picture for months, young players fresh from Grand Rapids stepped up. The veterans who remained healthy continued to contribute, and the Red Wings faithfully and tirelessly toiled away to keep themselves in the playoff race down the stretch.
By winning four of their last five, they have all but locked up a spot.
“Obviously we’ve done a lot of really good things this season, we’ve had a lot of fun doing it, we’ve had a lot of kids that have really grown,” Babcock said. “If you want to focus on the injuries, you can do that, but I think we’ve chosen not to do that and just keep on getting better. We feel we’ve gotten better as a team, but the reality is the measure here is going to be over these next four games. You want to keep plugging.”
The Wings may have just a few games left before they start what they hope will be another improbable playoff run, but no one is looking too far ahead. Veteran Niklas Kronwall said the team still has plenty to do.
“We’re in good shape here, but at the same time, we haven’t really accomplished anything,” Kronwall said. “We’ve put ourselves in a good spot, but every night is about getting two points. That’s only as far as you can look.”
A longtime Red Wing, Kronwall has played in 76 games this season, far more appearances than Datsyuk or Zetterberg, who have played in 41 and 45 games, respectively. Newcomer Daniel Alfredsson, who played 17 years with the Ottawa Senators before leaving for Detroit this season, said the young players have benefited from the leadership of Kronwall, Datsyuk, Zetterberg and fellow veterans Johan Franzen and Todd Bertuzzi.
“We had a similar situation in Ottawa a couple of years ago where we were going through a rebuild and pretty much went to most of our AHL team,” Alfredsson said. “A lot of guys came up, didn’t have a lot of experience and did really well too. I think from this group here with Zetterberg and Kronwall and Franzen and Bertuzzi, and guys who’ve been around here a long time, if you have those veteran guys to lead the way, it makes it easier.”
Certainly, however, Alfredsson credits the young guys themselves as well. After starting the season in Grand Rapids, 24-year-old Gustav Nyquist leads the team with 28 goals and ranks in the team’s top four with 47 points. Tomas Tatar has also come on strong with 36 points, and Riley Sheahan, Tomas Jurco, Luke Glendening and others have made significant contributions as well.
“It’s awesome to see,” Alfredsson said. “They’ve obviously been very well coached throughout their careers and probably especially with Grand Rapids to make the transition so seamless, I guess. They’re willing to work really hard. They all have skills to go along with it.
“The biggest thing is probably handling all the pressure that we’ve been under,” Alfredsson added. “They’ve done the most of it and done a great job.”
Thanks to the progress of this unprecedented combination of veterans and young players, the pressure should lessen as the Red Wings approach their last few games. They know they control whether they make the playoffs. At this point, the team’s inclusion in the postseason is nearly guaranteed. Detroit does not need any miracle losses by other teams fighting for a wild card spot now. It just needs to play well.
“In period one against the Leafs, in period one against Montreal at home, I thought we pressed in both those games, and I don’t think you need to do that,” Babcock said. “You just need to be loose and driving and play the game. We’re prepared to play the game, and we’ll be prepared tomorrow night. Let’s execute and be as good as we can be.”
Between recent win streaks and revealing victories over division leaders Pittsburgh and Boston in the last several weeks, it looks like the Red Wings can be solid, whether Datsyuk and Zetterberg can get back to full strength or not.