In the end, just as most of the experts predicted, the Nashville Predators turned out to be the better team.
The Red Wings became the first team eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs Friday night when they dropped Game 5 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series, 2-1, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
“It’s never fun to lose a playoff series, especially the first one,” Henrik Zetterberg told FOX Sports Detroit’s John Keating. “I believe we had a good enough team in here to do some damage. So it is tough. I think we played a tough opponent, they played well. They probably executed their game exactly like they wanted to.
“They have a good goalie and they play off that. I think (Ryan) Suter was really good for them. (Grosse Pointe native David) Legwand played really well and Pekka Rinne. I think those three were outstanding for them. So it’s going to be interesting what they can do in the future here in the playoffs.
“Unfortunately we can just sit on the side and watch.”
It marked the first time the Wings had exited in the first round since losing in six games to the Edmonton Oilers in 2006.
“Obviously I’m disappointed,” coach Mike Babcock told Keating. “I don’t think our franchise is about losing in the first round.”
It was somehow a fitting exit for a team that had a very strange season, with some unusual lows and amazing highs.
After winning their first five games of the season, the Wings lost their next six straight games. In those six games, they managed to average just one goal a game. At the time, it seemed like an aberration. But in retrospect, it might have been foreshadowing.
The Wings eventually came out of the six-game swoon and went on to set an NHL record by winning 23 straight home games.
Goaltender Jimmy Howard won 30 games before the All-Star break and earned his first All-Star nod.
Then things started to unravel because of injuries.
Mostly forgotten because it was the first major injury was the one to Patrick Eaves. Ironically, it was Nashville defenseman Roman Josi whose shot caught Eaves near the ear on November 26. Eaves’ jaw was broken and he suffered a concussion. After recovering from the broken jaw, Eaves still had concussion symptoms that kept him out the rest of the season.
After the All-Star break, Howard missed eight games with a broken index finger. When he recovered from that, he injured his groin, missed three games, came back and then aggravated the groin, missing four more games.
Howard said the injuries didn’t bother him in the playoffs.
“No, those are non-issues,” Howard told Keating. “I was fine coming in. I thought I did a superb job the last four or five (regular season) games that I got to play in. It’s just things didn’t go the way I wanted. I could have played a lot better in Games 1, 3 and 4 to give our guys a better chance.”
The strangest injury of all was the one to captain Nick Lidstrom, who missed a career-worst 11 games because of a deep bone bruise in his right ankle, which happened Feb. 25 in Colorado.
That same game, defenseman Jonathan Ericsson broke his left wrist, causing him to miss 13 games.
Those injuries came just four days after star center Pavel Datsyuk underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove fragments from his right knee. Datsyuk missed 11 games.
Danny Cleary (knee), Todd Bertuzzi (back), Johan Franzen (back) and backup goaltender Joey MacDonald (back) all missed games near the end of the season.
A team that was once leading the league in points and in contention for the Presidents Trophy found itself dropping in the standings.
The final blow was when Darren Helm missed the last 10 games of the regular season because of a sprained knee.
The Wings finished the regular season by going 7-11-4 in their last 22 games.
Once the playoffs started, it appeared that the Wings would be almost completely healthy. That changed in the first period of Game 1, when Helm’s forearm tendons were cut by Alex Radulov’s skate, a similar freak injury to the one Mike Modano suffered last season.
“Coming into the series, I was real excited to be getting Helm back because I thought that allowed us to match up better,” Babcock said. “In the end when it didn’t go right for him, I thought that hurt us. You have to be deep enough to handle injuries. We obviously were not.
“The disappointing part for us as a group here and for me is that we looked like we were having a way better year that I anticipated. Coming in, I thought we’d be scratching and clawing to make the playoffs and I thought we did a ton of good things. We never really scored again after we lost. We lost a bunch of guys and we lost Helm, we never got to a level we’d like to have gotten to.”
The team that outscored opponents 248-203 in the regular season found itself unable to put the puck in the net.
Meanwhile, the Wings’ defense, which had showed significant improvement from the previous season, made some mistakes, seemingly all of which the Predators capitalized on.
“I think our defensive breakdowns that we had. I don’t think we had too many in the regular season and we had too many in this series, especially against a team that isn’t giving you many chances,” Lidstrom told Keating. “They’re not going to have too many breakdowns defensively, they’re playing real well so you can’t have that against a very good team.”
For the first time since Babcock’s Mighty Ducks of Anaheim swept the Wings in 2003, the Wings were outscored in a playoff series. The Predators had 13 goals to the Wings’ nine.
“I think we created chances but we couldn’t find a way to score,” Zetterberg said. “I think when we made mistakes, they end up in our net. We played against a good team but I think if we had scored like we normally do, we would have had a better chance.”
Babcock made it very clear that the Wings would have to make changes, especially in the forward corps.
“I think you’ve got to give them a lot of credit,” Babcock said of the Predators. “They played hard. I would say — and I don’t include (Gabriel) Bourque or (Nick) Spaling in the group — they have seven top-six forwards. They’re deeper than we are for sure up front and I thought they took advantage of us that way and they always found a way to get one more goal than we did.”
Obviously some of the offseason decisions depend on whether Lidstrom decides to return. The decision on Lidstrom’s best friend, Tomas Holmstrom, 39, will likely be made by the team.
Lidstrom said he will not make an immediate decision and is not leaning one way or another.
“I’m going to take a few weeks here and I’m sure Kenny (Holland) wants to sit down and kind of go over things as well,” Lidstrom said. “I’ll see what he wants to do and what timetable he’ll give me for me to make a decision.”
Babcock seems certain that Lidstrom will return. Other things, he’s not quite as certain about.
“We lost in the second round three years ago, in the second round two years ago and now in the first round,” Babcock said. “That doesn’t sound to me like the right direction.”
Unfortunately, the Wings will have a long time this offseason to try to find that right direction.