Zetterberg Playing Like a Young 34 After Being an Old 33

The Red Wings captain of today was wearing a suit when he should have been wearing a uniform.

When the Red Wings honored defenseman Nick Lidstrom last winter by retiring his no. 5 jersey, the evening was jarred by the sight of two current Red Wings and former Lidstrom teammates, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, wearing Armani instead of Reebok.

Both were battling injuries. Zetterberg’s was a back ailment, and watching him move around gingerly that night was less-than-inspiring.

The Red Wings captain, Lidstrom’s successor in that role, returned in time for the playoffs but he wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent.

Hockey players are the Frankenstein monsters of athletes. They are sewn together and zipped up. I think if you look closely, some of them have bolts coming out of their necks.

They’ll play on one leg and seeing out of one eye. Teeth are optional, as are all internal organs other than the heart.

But as tough as they are, hockey players aren’t immune to two things: groin injuries and bad backs. Those maladies are the hockey player’s Kryptonite.

Just ask the guy in the broadcast booth who has described Zetterberg’s on-ice wizardry ever since Hank broke into the league in 2002.

Mickey Redmond was 28 years old when his back popped. A two-time 50-goal scorer, Redmond’s hands never left him. His shot never vanished. But his back went out and that was pretty much it for him as a hockey player. His last NHL game played was in January, 1976.

More than three years later, at age 31, Redmond tried to give it another shot on the ice but only lasted a few days in training camp in 1979 before retiring for good. The bad back quickly re-flared.

So there was some understandable breath holding when Zetterberg’s back, which has given him problems off-and-on for several years now, ached him yet again last season. Zetterberg’s age (33 at the time) only added to the angst.

Seeing Z waddle around during the Lidstrom ceremony didn’t help the psyche of a fan base that was rooting for its team to make the playoffs for a 23rd consecutive season.

Fast forward to this season. The captain’s back is repaired and he’s, well, back.

Boy, is he ever back.

Zetterberg is 34 now but he is flitting around the ice like he’s 24. Usually he is the Red Wings’ best player on any given night. He skates freely, briskly and with purpose. Sometimes you swear there are two no. 40s on the ice at once.

All Zetterberg has been doing is scoring goals, assisting on others, playing defense on both ends of the ice and leading by example. You know, kind of like what Z’s predecessors at captain—Steve Yzerman and Lidstrom—did all their careers.

On October 15, Zetterberg said he played a stinker of a game against Boston at Joe Louis Arena. He was quick to call himself out. The Red Wings lost in a shootout that night to the Bruins.

Zetterberg then took out his anger on the poor Toronto Maple Leafs.

In a rare home-and-home series with an Original Six club the weekend of October 17 and 18, Zetterberg assisted on all four Red Wings goals on Friday night in a 4-1 victory. The next night, he scored the game’s only goal, in overtime. The following game, in Montreal, Zetterberg scored Detroit’s only goal in a 2-1 loss.

That goal in Montreal meant that Henrik Zetterberg had a hand in the Red Wings’ six most recent goals.

The schedule moved on and Zetterberg moved on with it, his back healthy and leaving him pain-free.

Two nights after Montreal, the big, bad Pittsburgh Penguins came to town and with less than three minutes remaining, the Red Wings trailed 3-1 and the arena was emptying.

Enter Zetterberg. Again.

He took a pass near the Penguins blue line and split the defense like a high-flying youngster. Before Pens goalie Thomas Greiss, making his first start of the season, knew what hit him, Zetterberg had fired a shot over the goalie’s left shoulder to make the score 3-2.

Exactly two minutes later, at 19:21, Zetterberg assisted on Niklas Kronwall’s tying goal.

In overtime, with less than a minute remaining, Zetterberg was hard on the forecheck behind the Penguins net and got his stick on an attempted clearing pass. The puck squirted out to Justin Abdelkader, who deposited it past Greiss to cap the amazing comeback, which gave the Red Wings two of the most unlikeliest points they will earn all season.

When the snow settled, the three points Zetterberg earned against the Penguins gave him a hand in nine of the last 10 Red Wings goals.

The streak started immediately after the captain indicted himself for his play against Boston.

Watching the man they call Hank or Z—because Henrik and Zetterberg take too long to say—play this season is like watching a youthful rookie skating on fresh legs. If you didn’t know better, you’d think Zetterberg was one of those Grand Rapids Griffins called up last year.

Lately, coach Mike Babcock has paired Zetterberg with Pavel Datsyuk on the same line, now that Datsyuk is back in the lineup, healed from his shoulder injury.

To say that it’s pleasing to finally see Z and Pavs together again is an understatement. Last season, injuries kept the two off the ice far too often. Or when one was healthy, the other wasn’t.

Zetterberg turned 34 a few weeks ago. Last season he looked like an old 33, with his bad back. This year he looks like a young 34, mainly because his back doesn’t make him feel 54.

He captains a team that is younger and less experienced than any roster Yzerman or Lidstrom led, which makes Zetterberg’s savvy and skill on the ice all the more appreciated.

And heaven help the league the next time Z thinks he’s had a bad game.

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