Sunday, March 25, 2007

Red Wings’ Playoff Push Without Yzerman Still An Unknown

The Red Wings found themselves mired in another unexpected struggle in the playoffs against a lesser foe. A series with the St. Louis Blues was becoming a dogfight, and so quickly were the memories of postseasons wasted popping up on the hockey landscape in town.

The series with the barely-over-.500 Blues was squared at two victories each. The Red Wings had just been shutout in St. Louis, 4-0, to fall into that 2-2 tie in games. It was 1997, and the albatross was still being worn around the hockey team’s neck.


The year of the last Stanley Cup winner in Detroit, and even fans who were casual about their hockey knew the year’s significance. In New York, fans used to derisively chant “1940!” whenever the hometown Rangers stumbled in the playoffs – 1940 being the last time the Rangers captured the Cup on Broadway. They stopped chanting, finally, in 1994 – 54 years later – when the Rangers survived a seventh game against the Vancouver Canucks and became NHL champs.

But in Detroit the chanting and snide remarks were still going on. In 1996, the Red Wings took their gaudy record of 62 regular season wins into the playoffs and coughed and wheezed into the conference finals, struggling mightily in the two warmup rounds. Then the Colorado Avalanche bounced them from the playoffs, almost a mercy killing.

Two years before that, in 1994, the Red Wings couldn’t even survive a first round tussle with the third-year San Jose Sharks.

So here the Red Wings stood in April, 1997: tied at two victories apiece with another inferior opponent. Then their captain stood taller, as usual, in a sweaty, angry locker room in St. Louis after Game 4’s shutout.

Exactly what Steve Yzerman said has not been preserved for history, unfortunately. But enough has been said ABOUT what he said, by his awed teammates, to know that it went something like this: Everyone in this room knows we’re the better team. So let’s start proving it, if you want this season to continue.

The Wings blasted the Blues out of the playoffs in the next two games. Less than two months later, they stopped the chants of “1955!” and the like. Yzerman held the Stanley Cup aloft while in front of the adoring fans, one of whom had written a sign for the Captain to see.

It said, “NOW I can die happy!”

The last time the Red Wings went into the playoffs without Steve Yzerman as their captain, the year was 1985 and the team wasn’t much to look at. They qualified for the playoffs only because of a flawed system that rewarded mediocrity. What else do you call it, when the Red Wings played in the playoffs without shame, despite having a record that was 14 games below .500? They lasted three short, one-sided games against the Chicago Blackhawks.

In about three weeks, the Wings will plunge into another postseason – their 16th consecutive appearance in the playoffs – but this time they’ll go at it with Nicklas Lidstrom wearing the captain’s “C” on his red and white sweater.

The team Lidstrom will lead into the tournament is strong. It’s deep. It has quality goaltending. It has the two new players – Kyle Calder and Todd Bertuzzi – and they are supposed to provide an ingredient missing from recent playoff failures. It has a trio of future Hall of Famers on defense: Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, and Mathieu Schneider.

But it does not have Steve Yzerman.

Yzerman, who retired last summer as a player, will watch the proceedings high above the ice at JLA, dressed in his current work uniform of neatly pressed suit and silk tie. He’ll be close to the team in heart, but oh-so-far-away at the same time.

I only recently started wondering how the Red Wings will react, how they will handle it, if they get into another of those unexpected dogfights in the playoffs, and are unable to look around the dressing room and see #19, Yzerman, and thus can’t look to him for guidance.

This is no knock on Lidstrom as captain; not at all. If anyone can lead an Yzerman-less team into battle, it’s Nick Lidstrom. But the team has been so used to Yzerman doing or saying the right things at the right times, that I wonder how they’ll cope when that is no longer an option.

I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

It’s yet another testament to Yzerman’s sustained greatness that I am not alone, I’m sure, in doing some hand-wringing at the thought of no Yzerman in the playoffs, despite the fact that the team is still heavily populated with terrific veterans. Why should we be concerned about leadership, when there’s Lidstrom, and Chelios, and Kris Draper, and Kirk Maltby still around – all Cup winners in Detroit and elsewhere (in Chelios’s case)?

Because Steve Yzerman led a hockey team like few have done before him, or ever will after him. So even a team sprinkled with Hall of Famers ought to be concerned.

They’ll say they aren’t. They’ll talk bravely of knowing this day would arrive the moment Yzerman announced his retirement last July 3rd. They’ll maybe even have us convinced of this. Until the first blip on the screen. The first hoop to jump through – and history says it will occur in the very first round.

Then they will look around and see something that hasn’t been seen since 1983: a Red Wings dressing room without a stall for Steve Yzerman.

Perhaps they’ll be just fine. Maybe Lidstrom and the other veterans will be able to right the ship should it go off kilter. Maybe there’s no real reason for worry, after all. It’s not like the Red Wings roster is filled with chopped liver.

But there isn’t Steve Yzerman.

So what will Nick Lidstrom say in a must-have locker room speech?

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