‘‘NEXT YEAR’ NO SURE THING FOR WINGS

In Hockeytown, when the team wins, it feels like destiny, and when it loses, destiny took a breather, sure to be back next year, ready for a kiss, right?

Well, at the risk of having my head taken off, don’t be so sure. In the aftermath of the Red Wings’ second-round departure from the playoffs, we have been hearing a lot of "Hey, injuries made it a weird year" and "Hey, those were one-goal losses against San Jose" and "Hey, the rest will do the Wings good."

And, hey, I get it. And when you’re around the Wings – their good-vibe locker room, their strident coach, their shake-it-off goalie – the explanations make sense.

But I had a unique chance to watch this second round from afar – for the first time in years – and minus the coating of our hometown optimism, I have to say this:

They were beaten.

And it could easily happen again. Problems in the playoffs

Sure, injuries made it a weird year. But when the Wings got healthy, they won 16 of their last 21 games and were "the team nobody wants to play in the playoffs," remember?

What happened next? They lost seven of 12. And only one frontline guy, Brad Stuart, in the final game, was seriously hurt. So how are injuries an excuse?

As for one-goal games? Let’s be real. Much of playoff hockey is one-goal games. If it were possible, some would be half-goal games. But you need to be on the right side of those. The Sharks were. And the fact that the Wings couldn’t hold leads in third periods tells you as much as the final margins do.

As for "the rest will do them good" approach? I don’t know. I think great teams rise when the playoffs knock. It’s true, the Wings have played an awful lot of games. And Mike Babcock told the media this early exit would allow his team to "train." But how many Stanley Cups are won in training, and how many are won by experience in big games?

What you need for a Cup run is the following: 1) great defense, 2) great goaltending, 3) stars who step up and 4) some unexpected force that catches fire.

Two years ago, the Wings had all this, from Chris Osgood in the net to Henrik Zetterberg the likely star and Dan Cleary the unlikely one. This year, I saw more of this from San Jose. Joe Pavelski, for example, as an X-factor; Joe Thornton as the star who stepped up. And remember, the Wings’ recent success has coincided with years of the Sharks’ underachieving. If San Jose finally has figured it out – along with coming teams like Chicago and defending champion Pittsburgh – that’s not good for Detroit’s chances. That darn salary cap

Neither is the new economy in hockey, which has leveled the playing field. Marian Hossa is still alive in the playoffs – but for the Blackhawks. Mikael Samuelsson already has more playoff goals than anyone on the Wings – but for Vancouver.

You can’t hoard your stars the way Detroit used to. And now comes a heavy decision with Nicklas Lidstrom. If he leaves, the Wings lose their captain, the anchor of their defense and their locker room. If he stays, they spend at least $6 million to $7 million of their salary cap on a guy who is 40.

Tomas Holmstrom is 37. Brian Rafalski is 36. Kris Draper is 38. Even Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Zetterberg and Cleary will be in their 30s by next postseason. The Wings have some youth, but are those young players future stars?

As for Jimmy Howard, he’s solid and we all agree he shakes things off. But has he shown that he can steal games and carry a team to a title? At best that’s a question mark.

And so is next season. Listen, I am not saying the Wings can’t do it. They’re a great franchise. But we shouldn’t consider it some kind of automatic. My first thought when the Wings began to falter this year was this: They should have won Game 6 last June. Detroit was on the precipice of back-to-back Cups, with a 3-2 lead on Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. If ever birthright needed to assert itself, it was that night. Grab it when you can.

But they could not close. In the battle between experience and youth, youth won. And three nights later, on Detroit ice, the Penguins won it all.

Time will tell if that was a last best chance. I am not saying it was. I am saying there’s no such thing as a sure bet in hockey, even if your town is named after the sport.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch "The Mitch Albom Show" 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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