Haywire in Hockeytown

In sports writing … as in some track and field events, in swimming and some motor sports … you can experience a “false start.”

I hit a bad note Wednesday night as I sat down to record my annual jittery feelings about the Red Wings as they entered the final days of hockey’s regular season in anticipation of the all-important — and annually jittery — Stanley Cup playoffs.

I had started my Wings blog before the team’s March 30th game at the Joe Louis Arena against the also-ran St. Louis Blues. I planned to finish the piece while watching that contest on TV. For the opening I had written:

“The best and worst time of the season for hockey fans is at hand.

“The springtime Stanley Cup playoffs offer an annual combination of the most satisfying excitement and the worst pain a sports fan can feel over a compact period of time.”

That lead — applied to the Red Wings and their 2011 regular season — held water until Wednesday night’s game. Following the team’s stunning 10-3 loss to the Blues, it seemed obvious that all bets … like all previous blog openings … are off. Pain may have jumped the gun this year. Something is haywire in Hockeytown.

It should probably be primarily noted that modern Red Wings teams — and I’d define the 2011 Wings as a continuing piece of the terrific organization that has been hockey’s most successful franchise of the past 14 years — have been a model of consistency and reliability since 1997. So why a panic after one game coming near the end of a long and grinding regular season?

Okay, they lost big. It was a freakish event; a strange night all around. They’ll get it out of their system, and get back on track in time for the playoffs. The Red Wings always do.

But will they this time?

There was something fairly ominous in Wednesday night’s debacle. You could even pick up a sense of panic, or at least deep concern, in the reactions of the television crew that broadcast the strange game. Veteran Mickey Redmond, contrary to what some of the younger announcers had been offering as salve for the weird defeat, said after the final whistle that the crushing defeat would NOT be easily forgotten, discarded in the Wings’ dressing room as ‘just one of those nights.’

The Mick pointed out that the team “has been leaking oil” in recent outings, showing a worrisome inability to play effective defensive hockey through much of the current season, while continuously disappointing local fans by playing their worst hockey at home on Joe Louis ice. Even Wings coach Mike Babcock seemed shell-shocked after the game.

Are these the Red Wings we’ve consistently come to rely on over recent seasons? Or is there a change of leadership about to come into play in the NHL’s strong and shifting Western Conference?

Wednesday’s slaughter at the hands of the Blues seemed increasingly weird and inexplicable as it played out. It had the feel of a pickup game of hockey when one of the team’s is hopelessly outmatched by their opponent, so they put their game on cruise control to get the outing over with.

But the Red Wings? Manhandled so completely … actually humiliated … by the Blues?

The current Wings team has seemed to show a lack of fire this season, even as they have accumulated a fairly impressive regular season record. Certainly they’ve been hurt by injuries, with Pavel Datsyuk’s absence always seeming to change the entire character of the team. But with clubs like Nashville, Chicago, Phoenix and L.A. looming as potential playoff opponents, there is the worry that some young, aggressive, and hot-blooded team may be waiting to blow the veteran Red Wings away in the first round.

Granted … we worry about such stuff every year. It goes with the territory. The character of the Red Wings — for better or worse, and historically it has proven to be for the better — has seemed to be the mindset of Nicklas Lidstrom and the Swedish contingent that leads the team. Coldly efficient, quiet, calm. In many ways, traits that don’t seem to translate well to the explosive game of hockey. But four Stanley Cups in 14 years has been proof enough.

It’s just that … well, a 10-3 embarrassment at the hands of the already-eliminated St. Louis Blues … at home … at a time when the Red Wings dearly needed two points to gain post-season advantages … hit Wednesday evening like a punch to the gut.

It’s enough to worry even the most trusting of Red Wings fans.

It’s enough to make you re-write a lead.

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