(AP) — Prior to the past couple seasons, the Detroit Red Wings have heard every possible explanation for why their long-running playoff streak could finally end.
Adding another year to an aging core and subtracting one of the greatest defensemen in NHL history heading into a lockout-shortened sprint of a season make this one no exception.
Detroit begins its quest for a 22nd straight playoff appearance on the road Saturday night against the St. Louis Blues, who are considered a top contender to capture their first Stanley Cup.
Not long after the Red Wings’ five-game playoff loss to Nashville – their only first-round exit since 2006 – seven-time Norris Trophy winner and captain Nicklas Lidstrom opted to retire after 20 seasons.
Tomas Holmstrom, who spent 15 seasons as a physical presence in front of the net, recently announced his decision to retire as well.
The ‘C’ now will be donned by 32-year-old Henrik Zetterberg, who is one of eight players on the roster over age 30.
“Either we are too old or we have no defense,” Zetterberg said, repeating critical comments regarding the Red Wings. “The important thing is what we believe in here.”
Zetterberg, though, understands why critics wonder if Detroit’s playoff run is on the verge of ending – especially in a 48-game season. Though it still possesses considerable talent, players like Todd Bertuzzi (37), Pavel Datsyuk (34), Dan Cleary (34) and Johan Franzen (33) seem to be on the wrong side of their primes.
“The mindset of how we’re going to play will not change that much, but then again, No. 5 is not going to be out there so we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Zetterberg said. “We just have to be honest about it. We have to take it as a challenge.
“There’s a few big pieces that have left the team, but most of the core guys are still here and we made some additions to the team.”
One of those departures is defenseman Brad Stuart, who signed with San Jose after four-plus seasons with the Red Wings (48-28-6). Niklas Kronwall takes over as the team’s No. 1 defenseman, leading a group consisting of Jonathan Ericsson, Ian White, Brendan Smith, Kyle Quincey and Carlo Colaiacovo.
They’ll be hoping to keep pucks away from goaltender Jimmy Howard, who tied for fifth in the league with 35 wins and was sixth with a 2.13 goals-against average in 2011-12.
“It’s a different look back here, not only with Nick gone, but also with Stuey, two huge pieces for our club,” Kronwall said. “At the same time, it’s a great opportunity for the rest of us to step up.”
That begins Saturday against a St. Louis team largely intact after a 109-point season and Central Division title. Coach Ken Hitchcock is entering his first full season with the team after taking over for the fired Davis Payne on Nov. 6.
The Blues (49-22-11), though, were swept out of the Western Conference semifinals by eventual Cup champion Los Angeles. T.J. Oshie, who tied captain David Backes for the team lead with 54 points, said that disappointment provides extra motivation heading into this season.
“Obviously, you want to remember what it felt like for them to end your season when there was so much promise and so many people behind you,” said Oshie, who signed a five-year, $20.875 million extension on July 19. “We’ve just got to build on that, remember how they beat us, why they beat us.”
St. Louis was outscored 15-6 in that series, but the goaltending combination of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott was stellar in the regular season. It led the NHL with a 1.89 goals-against average – the fewest goals allowed in an 82-game season in league history.
The Blues, though, went 0-3-1 while being outscored 12-5 over the last four meetings with the Red Wings last season. They’ve earned points in eight of the last nine meetings in St. Louis, though, and Oshie said he’s excited to open the season against Detroit.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, I don’t think,” Oshie said. “It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be exciting.”