A few hours before his team took the ice on Saturday against the Nashville Predators, Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock made a telling statement.
"Right now, their lineup probably is deeper than our lineup,'' he said.
That's not supposed to happen to the Red Wings, who annually rank among NHL's highest in payroll and has represented the gold standard in the league over the last 15 years, winning four Stanley Cups. That's especially true when measured against an opponent that ranks in the bottom five in payroll, even if it's one of the league's more competitive and well managed franchises.
Injuries can strike any team and lately they have taken a heavy toll on the mighty Red Wings' descent. Just a few weeks ago, Detroit was celebrating the longest home winning streak in NHL history and held the top overall record in the league.
Entering Wednesdays game at Anaheim, Detroit has lost four out of five and is 3-6-1 over its last 10, falling to the fourth spot in the Western Conference. Those same Predators are nipping at their heels, just two points behind Detroit for second in the Central Division. Nashville, fifth in the West, holds a game in hand and with only 13 games remaining (11 for Detroit after Wednesdays game), the next few weeks could determine which team has home ice advantage for a potential first-round playoff series.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Detroit's 3-6-1 slide has occurred with center Pavel Datsyuk, considered by some the best all-around forward in the league, out after having a procedure on his knee. Nicklas Lidstrom, the seven-time and reigning Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's best defenseman, has missed seven in a row. Power forward Todd Bertuzzi has missed four straight and starting goalie Jimmy Howard just returned on Tuesday in a 5-2 loss to Los Angeles after missing three in a row. Defenseman Jonathan Ericsson has missed seven in a row.
Thats enough to take the starch out of any team.
"I mean, our record's not even close, so reality is we haven't done good enough,'' Babcock said. "But weve battled hard.''
He praised the team for not giving up too many shots on journeyman goalie Joey MacDonald, who was not called up from the minors until Feb. 4, but has done a good job of keeping Detroit competitive.
"So were not an offensive machine, but we're hanging in there and we're battling hard to try and help our goaltender out,'' Babcock said. "I think we've done a pretty good job in that area.''
Where Detroit has truly hurt itself is on the power play. The Wings have gone six straight games without a power play goal, an 0-for-24 stretch. The Wings' unit has fallen to No. 22 in the league despite the continued presence of three players who already have hit the 20-goal plateau -- Jiri Hudler, Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula -- and a fourth, Henrik Zetterberg, whose 41 assists tie him for 12th in the league.
After Saturday's 3-2 loss to the Predators, defenseman Ian White was at a loss to explain it.
"The difference tonight, as it has been for quite a few nights, is special teams,'' said White, whose 10 power play points have been helpful contribution this season. "We're moving it around pretty good, getting a couple good looks, but for some reason we're just not getting the goals.''
Said Babcock: "To me, we have enough skill and enough understanding of how to play, so we have to be better in that area for sure.''
While the outlook remains unsettling right now -- especially Detroit's 16-19-1 road record this season, which has been exacerbated by three straight road losses -- a silver lining looms for the Red Wings. Howard, with 33 wins under his belt despite missing 11 games with various injuries, already is back and probably just needs time to play his way back into form. Datsyuk has begun skating and could return relatively soon.
"Were going to get guys back eventually here,'' Babcock said. "If you can get through this what it does, you think about Howard, Datsyuk and Lidstrom, really that's our top goalie, our top (defenseman) and our top forward. They've been freshened up. And anyone who's been involved knows what a grind it can be and so that can be a real positive thing. At the same time, though, you don't want to lose ground. You want to keep getting better.''
Babcock thinks other players have benefited from having more responsibility in different situations and having to play more of a leadership role, No. 2 defenseman Nicklas Kronwall in particular.
"Kronwalls really had to step up for us and I think thats important," Babcock said. "Its probably good for Zetterberg and (Filppulla) in some ways. The guys have been excellent, so I think those opportunities are important.''
Nonetheless, the Wings know the playoffs are right around the corner and dont want to back in.
"It's never fun, never easy to lose but we put ourselves in a good spot by playing so good at home,'' White said. "We got a couple games left here, good road trip. Try to get things clicking for playoffs.''
That road trip concludes Saturday in San Jose.
As he noted last Saturday before playing Nashville that his team was probably outmanned, Babcock had a simple, positive message for his team.
"Who cares?'' he said. "Theres only one puck. Let's play.''