NASHVILLE, Tenn. — All right, hockey class. Open your lesson plans. The same ones we used last April, and the April before, and the April before. The ones with “WHY?” scribbled across the front and “WHO ARE THESE GUYS?” scrawled on the back.
Yes, kids, it’s time to ask the same old questions, because those who do not learn from history are doomed to skate it all over again. Last year, the Red Wings gave an inferior team two victories, and two games later, the Wings were done. The year before the Wings gave a visiting team two victories before waking up. The year before, same story, two victories to a lesser team, which led to four and an early Detroit summer.
And here we are again, this time the Nashville Predators — whose entire payroll could fit in Mike Ilitch’s tie pin — pulling even with the best team in hockey, and shrinking Detroit’s Stanley Cup dream to a best-of-three series. A 3-0 loss in a town better known for picks than pucks? It’s not funny. It’s not cute. And we’re all going to stay after school until we get this right.
Repeat after me: Lesson No. 1. When you have a team down, you don’t let it get up. The Wings should know this by now. Instead, they surrendered one needless game Sunday, and Tuesday night, instead of saying, “That’s it for you guys,” gave a muddy performance, took dumb penalties, fired many hard but ineffective shots, switched goalies and lost just enough concentration to lose the game. Which leads to . . .
Lesson No. 2. Don’t turn your opponent into a tougher team than it is. It’s the Nashville Predators, guys! They entered this party lucky to be invited. They now are acting as if they can run up a bar tab. The Wings’ occasional mental mistakes have provided the Predators with goals they shouldn’t have and victories they didn’t really expect. And Tuesday? Well, we knew the Predators were faster, but they shouldn’t be more mature. Detroit composure was an oxymoron by late in Game 4, and the Wings looked like the team that hadn’t been here before, scrumming and swinging and getting lost in stuff that does you no good.
“They’re getting frustrated and they’re starting to feel the pressure,” said Nashville’s Steve Sullivan. “We’ve got everything going for us, we’ve got nothing to lose and . . .”
Shush. That’s enough out of you. Take your seat.
Of course, class, what hurts is that he’s right. It’s that same old same old first-round blues. And the Red Wings — who really ought to be mad at themselves — return home singing many familiar refrains, including . . .
It can’t be happening, right?
Familiar Complaint No. 1: If the Wings are outshooting the other guys, why aren’t they winning? Once again, the Wings take target practice, but the other team hits the target. Nashville’s first goal Tuesday came on its second shot of the game. By that point, Detroit already had nine blanks. Nashville’s second goal came on its ninth shot and its third goal on the 11th — and by that point, the Wings already had 26 shots and nothing to show for it. Which leads to . . .
Familiar Complaint No. 2: How come their goaltender is suddenly so good? Lord knows we heard this last year, when a goalie with three names, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, suddenly had just one: Superman.
Now Tomas Vokoun, a guy who just a few days ago was saying of the Red Wings,
“They’re better than us,” somehow doesn’t have a hard time stopping all these better guys’ shots. Kirk Maltby had him dead on; Vokoun stopped him. Brett Hull fired several bullets at him — and missed on several others — and wound up empty. Brendan Shanahan tried from all over the place — seven shots in the first two periods alone. Stop. Stop. Stop. Since returning to Nashville, Vokoun has thwarted 82 of 83 Detroit shots. Who knew Czech guys like country music that much?
Which leads to . . .
Familiar Complaint No. 3: Where are all the big guns for Detroit? This is another perennial April question. Year after year, the Wings are loaded with offensive stars, and then come the playoffs and, for some stretch of time, the big flowers wilt. Hey. This isn’t rocket science. Detroit was second in the NHL in offense, while Nashville was 20th in defense. That means the Wings should score more than six goals in four games. Stars like Pavel Datsyuk — is he actually, you know, playing? — Henrik Zetterberg, Steve Yzerman and Shanahan should have some goals by now.
Where are they?
Time will tell, eh?
All right, class. Now that we’ve asked the perennial questions, here are the perennial answers:
Answer No. 1: Patience, patience. This is something the Wings have by the gallon. They know you only have to win four, not the first four. Or as Yzerman put it, “Things can change fast if we get out to a quick lead Thursday.” This calming attitude can work wonders for turnarounds (Hello, Vancouver) or it can lull a team into an early tee time (Hello, Anaheim).
Let’s assume the former, for now.
Answer No. 2: Turn up the intensity. The Wings did not do the little things that win games Tuesday night. They are very good at returning to those things when pushed against the wall — which they will be for Game 5 at Joe Louis Arena.
Answer No. 3: Look at the roster. Come on. You can’t keep that many good names down for that long.
Having said all that, class, your Wings should be angry and concerned. With Dave Lewis at the helm, they have now lost six of their last eight playoff games — all first-round jobs. You could say he’s not making adjustments or you could say the players aren’t delivering for him, but this is not speaking well for his postseason prowess. He deserves better — but he needs to prove it.
And so do they all. Class, I am going to sound a little un-teacherlike here: Get with it! The Wings talked all season about how bitter last year’s playoff exit was. Yeah? If it was so bad, why are they tempting a repeat?
Get angry, Wings. Get focused. Get smart. And get better.
Or we’re going to have to call your parents.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.