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In his office Babcock glances over at a whiteboard on the wall that has the numbers of his players. Finally this is his team, the one general manager Ken Holland envisioned before a hellacious raft of injuries. Six key players missed about 10% of the season or more: Franzen (55 games, ACL), Niklas Kronwall (30 games, sprained knee), Valtteri Filppula (26 games, broken wrist), Tomas Holmstrom (13 games, broken foot), Dan Cleary (12 games, separated shoulder) and Henrik Zetterberg (eight games, separated shoulder).
"That's had something to do with our rut, but the reality is we've got to be more Red Wing--like," Babcock says. "What Red Wings do is out-will you, bring it every night. And that means you can't come to the rink hoping, you come to the rink knowing. We've been inconsistent enough that we come to the rink hoping."
The Olympics often exact a toll on NHL rosters sprinkled with players—Detroit sent seven—who represent their countries, but the Games might actually have been a blessing for some of the Swede-heavy Wings. The tournament served as a glorified training camp for Kronwall, who played just six of 10 games before the Olympic break, and Franzen, who played only the last three.
Certainly Babcock successfully toggled between the Red Wings and Team Canada. Forty minutes after a joyous host nation erupted, Babcock was asked jokingly, "Who's in goal tomorrow in Colorado?" The coach replied, "Jimmy Howard. And I know my lines. I know who pays my salary." Babcock says he returned to Detroit a better coach for having been around his Olympic assistants, including Jacques Lemaire, whose penalty-killing system—a four-man box that aggressively challenges attempted entries into the zone—Babcock appropriated after working with the Devils' coach at Canada's orientation camp last August.
While Olympic demands can't explain why the Wings haven't skated rings around the NHL, these reasons might:
• Hockey-ed Out. In the previous three seasons Detroit has been in 11 of 12 possible playoff series, which translates to 309 regular-season and playoff games. High intensity. Short summers. Pittsburgh has played only 14 fewer matches, but its core (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Sergei Gonchar and Marc-André Fleury) averages 25 years old. The cornerstone Wings (Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Brian Rafalski and Franzen) are an average of 33. "With the long seasons and the compressed schedule this year, it's almost the perfect storm," says goaltender Chris Osgood. "It's almost four seasons in three for us. This year the schedule's so condensed, I think we've had trouble finding our mojo, our consistency, to stay at that high level for a long period of time."
• Revenge of the Salary Cap. After finessing the cap with long-term contracts—Zetterberg's 12-year deal pays him until an age when he will crave supper at five o'clock—the Red Wings have been squeezed like an actress into an Oscars gown. They couldn't afford to retain Marian Hossa, who skipped to the Blackhawks in July 2009 for $62.8 million over 12 years. Jiri Hudler, a small but nifty forward who had a keen grasp of Detroit's puck-possession style, also bolted last summer for Dynamo Moscow. "Five years into a cap world, we have a system designed for parity," Holland says. "And all 30 teams are going to be hit with the same thing. It'll happen to [Cup contenders such as] Washington and Chicago. You can crunch numbers, do creative contracts, but you can't beat the system."
• Datsyuk and Zetterberg. The Butch and Sundance of two-way hockey haven't produced offensively. After a 97-point, Hart Trophy--caliber season, Datsyuk has 55 points and a .87 points-per-game average, substantially below his 1.16 of the past four. Zetterberg has 18 goals after averaging 36.5 post-lockout. Detroit is one of just three teams without a 20-goal scorer.
The stagnant offense has turned the Wings into something they weren't even when Mike Vernon, Osgood and Dominik Hasek were backstopping them to four Stanley Cups in 11 seasons: a goaltender team. The goalie isn't Osgood, now four wins shy of 400, but Howard, a 25-year-old rookie. Howard stumbled early in the season, literally. In an October game in Edmonton he staggered across the crease on one play, looking less like an NHL goalie than a barfly. Following that 6--5 shootout loss to the Oilers, Howard brazenly told Holland, a former goalie, "I'm really close to figuring this thing out." "I was," Howard says now. "I had to figure out that I was quick enough side to side, that I didn't have to overpush." Howard, who has a .924 save percentage and 23 wins since Nov. 11, says he is humbled just being around such accomplished teammates, who in turn owe him a debt of gratitude for helping save their season. Says Holland, "Up to the Olympic break, he's probably been our MVP."
There is still time for them to be Red Wing--like for a full 60 minutes. If the hockey world did indeed see the real Detroit during that second period on Sunday and that team makes the tournament, look out. These playoffs will be wide-open. Many of the leading contenders have potential flaws, either between the pipes (Washington, Chicago) or between the ears (San Jose).