x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

NHL: Youth movement for Detroit Red Wings surviving difficult times

Detroit is going through growing pains. Only five of the 18 players who dressed for the Red Wings' post-season opener were in their 30s, which is something of a change for one of the league's powerhouse franchises. Gregg Patton reports.

Detroit Red Wings' Gustav Nyquist, right, celebrates with team mate Jonathan Ericsson after scoring in overtime against the Anaheim Ducks during Game 2 of their NHL Western Conference quarter-final hockey playoff on Thursday. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters
Detroit Red Wings' Gustav Nyquist, right, celebrates with team mate Jonathan Ericsson after scoring in overtime against the Anaheim Ducks during Game 2 of their NHL Western Conference quarter-final hockey playoff on Thursday. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

If the Detroit Red Wings survive the first round of the Stanley Cup play-offs, it figures they will do it the hard way.

Why change now?

The Wings had to win their final four regular-season games to reach the post-season, sneaking in by one point.

To get a split of two play-off games away to the Anaheim Ducks, they had to win Game 2 in overtime after blowing a three-goal lead in the final 12 minutes of regulation.

"We made it a little more difficult than we needed to," said Henrik Zetterberg, the team captain, knowing that "difficult" has become a theme in Detroit.

Part of the reason for their hair-raising style may be their youth.

Only five of the 18 players who dressed for their post-season opener were in their 30s, something of a change for one of the league's powerhouse franchises, which has qualified for a league-best 22 consecutive play-off appearances, partly by keeping veteran talent together, and adding as needed.

No more.

Two difficult labour disputes and work stoppages in the past decade have brought on a tight salary cap and ushered out big-spending dynasties.

"We're a young group," said Justin Abdelkader, only 26, but a veteran of four full seasons.

"That's different for us, but that's how the cap system works now. You can't go out and sign all the all-star free agents you want. You have to develop your talent. I think it's good for the game."

The Wings still have a core of older stars - such as Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen and Daniel Cleary - but the team is banking on the understudies to mature quickly.

One of them, Gustav Nyquist, 23, notched the overtime winner in Anaheim.

"We knew it would be tight just to get into the play-offs," Nyquist said of the Wings' late-season push.

"That helped prepare us going in, for sure."

Zetterberg concurs. "It's been like play-off hockey the last two weeks for us."

It may have been a nerve-testing finish to the season, but it could only have helped Detroit's less-experienced players.

Their coach, Mike Babcock, put a positive spin on the third-period meltdown in Game 2, when they got complacent with the big lead.

"That's kids," he said. "We stopped skating."

He was pleased his team won while absorbing "a great learning experience".

He added: "We were as frazzled as we've been in a long time. But I think this is going to be good for our kids."

Growing pains have been part of the NHL experience for a long time.

Now, even in Detroit.

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