Tuesday, May 4, 2010

There Are Things That Drift Away

Sharks 4, Red Wings 3 (OT); Western Semifinals, 0-3

Iron & Wine - Passing Afternoon

Found at skreemr.com

It's never easy to say goodbye to someone, or something, that you love. It's even harder when you say goodbye to those that you adore so much, but realize they're not the same as they once were. What once was vibrant is now haggard. What once was fiery is now extinguished. What once shined under the spotlights now sweats.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe in my head, I've elevated the 2007-2008 Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings to a level of reverence that they never truly reached. Maybe the perfection I have envisioned in my mind didn't exist. Either way, it certainly exceeded what's transpired since that warm summer night in Pittsburgh 23 months ago. In my mind's eye, I see the definition of "Red Wings hockey": precision, speed, execution, grace, intelligence. You could throw a dart at every synonym for those words, and you'd hit one that accurately described the Red Wings on their quest to a championship two springs ago.

Now? I'm not sure if any of them apply anymore. What began to crack last spring has broken completely now. Whether it's a result of players getting older, or someone behind the bench being really, really bad at what they do, or some combination of both, it doesn't matter; the Red Wings no longer possess many of the qualities that we as fans have grown accustomed to seeing night in and night out. Losing battles in the corners, losing possession of the puck, passes failing to connect through the neutral zone, defensemen being turnstiled and burned by being out of position. None of these were present two years ago. They began to pop up last season, culminating in one of the most painful nights in the lives of Red Wings fans. Even The Perfect Human, one Nicklas Lidstrom, has become mortal.

This goes beyond officiating. The refs were bad, but they're hardly to blame. Tonight's scapegoats, as if it really matters, could be a few select players, I suppose. Jason Williams, in the lineup for some unknown reason, does what he does and fires a wild shot that, of course, ricochets out the other side and produces the 2-on-1 that ends the game, because, just like last year in Pittsburgh in Game 4, Brian Rafalski is completely and utterly worthless in this situation. He does nothing to stop the pass, and bang, it's game over. And it's game over because of two completely unacceptable goals given up by our rookie goaltender, Jimmy Howard. The first goal was horrible enough as it is, Howard inexplicably lifting his pad off the ice and exposing his five hole when that was the only shot available; but to give it up with 1.8 seconds left in the period and going to intermission up 2-1 instead of 2-0 is garbage. Second goal wasn't his fault, it was on the five players playing in front of him, losing another faceoff battle and doing nothing but watching as Joe Thornton skates around the net and out front with the puck. Hard to blame the goalie when the players in front of them are picking their noses. But the third goal? He deserves to be cussed out for that one. I'm not kidding. Somebody in that locker room, a player, a coach, whoever, should read Howard the riot act for that. The Wings fell asleep after going up 3-1, and predictably paid for it, but Howard woke up them with his two saves on Martin Hanzal in Game 5 in Phoenix. And to give it up on a goal like that, in a one goal game in the third period in a game you have to have, when your team needs a wakeup call - well, how can you defend somebody after that? I understand Chris Osgood is finished as a #1 goaltender, and this was the mindset of the Red Wings headed into the postseason - it's Jimmy's show, sink or swim. Meanwhile, the Red Wings' defense is aging, there are heavyweights in the Western Conference significantly younger than this Detroit team, and sacrificing a postseason for the sake of getting your new goaltender experience, well...it is what it is, I guess.

And what it is is over. This isn't like 2007 when the Red Wings' #2 and #3 defensemen didn't play a second of the West Finals against Anaheim. This isn't like last year where the Wings were a walking MASH unit by the time That Fateful Night in June rolled around. No, this is the case of a championship window as we know it getting closed down just a bit further, close to completely shut. Lidstrom will be around for maybe one more year. After that, then what? You don't just plug in the gap left by one of the greatest players of all time. Rafalski has a couple years left, but he's old too and showed his defensive limitation once again tonight. Kronwall and Stuart are top four defensemen, but not top two. They aren't the type you send over the boards everytime the opposition's top line takes the ice. You don't tell them to quarterback your power play and penalty kill. So where does that leave us? Hoping that the light goes on for Jonathan Ericsson, who was terrible this year? Hoping that Jakub Kindl pans out like the first round pick he was? Hoping that Brendan Smith develops quickly and is a star? That's entirely too much hope in a conference where Kane, Toews, Sharp, Bolland, Versteeg and Byfuglien are all under 28 in Chicago. Where Los Angeles appears to be rising to prominence with Kopitar (21), Stoll (27), Brown (24), Frolov (27), Simmonds (20), Doughty (19!), Johnson (22) and a star goaltender in the minors (Bernier, 20). Where Heatley, Thornton, Marleau, Clowe, Pavelski, and Setoguchi are all under 30 for the Sharks. Where nine of Vancouver's top 11 scorers this year are under 30, and their goalie, one of the best in the world, just turned 31 and is in his prime.

It's a frightening prospect, as all these teams in the West have young stars up and coming, and the Red Wings have an aging defense and a goaltender who has struggled in his first postseason. It's frightening when the team renowned for its ability to put the skate to the throat of its opponent blows a 3-1 lead in the third period and loses in overtime at home in a game they had to win to save their season. It's frightening that they are propelling the "playoff chokers" into the Western Finals.

I believe (and yes, I'm a homer) that the Red Wings were the best team in 2007, and would've beaten the Ducks (and then Ottawa) if Schneider and Kronwall had been healthy. I believe if they had possessed anything resembling health last year, if Datsyuk, Hossa, Zetterberg, Cleary and Lidstrom weren't nursing injuries that should've had them on the sidelines, they would've beaten Pittsburgh. I believe this team deserved better than the one championship they got.

But that's life. It's about disappointment, and how you deal with it. It's about setbacks, and how you cope with them.

It's about saying farewell too soon to those you love with all your heart.

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