Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg practises, but still unlikely to play

Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg hasn't played hockey since the Olympics. (Getty...

Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg hasn't played hockey since the Olympics. (Getty Images/AFP)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 11:10 PM ET

DETROIT - For Claude Julien, it’s a little like the Sochi Olympics all over again.

For Mike Babcock, not so much.

As the Bruins continue to smother the Red Wings in this Eastern Conference quarter-final series, we’re starting to see similarities to Canada’s gold-medal domination back in February.

Boston coach Julien, who was Wings’ counterpart Babcock’s assistant in Russia, has his team playing in near lock-down mode. Babcock, then, is left to play the role of rest of the world, stumped at finding scoring opportunities and, so far, without an answer.

With the complete defensive game the Bruins employ — from goalie Tuukka Rask to a stellar blue-line crew to forwards committed to strong defensive play in all zones, the Wings’ offence has been completely shut down. Shots, when they come, are from the outside. Scoring opportunities are as rare as a Maple Leafs playoff berth.

“They’ve done an exceptional job of pushing us out of the middle and keeping us on the outside,” Babcock said on Wednesday. “You’ve got to make their goalie work more.

“(Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask) looks great in the warmups — that’s where he gets most of his shots.”

The inability to get to the inside has clearly caused the frustration to build on the Wings as the series moves on. The suffocation gets even worse when the Bruins get up early, as they did in both Games 2 and 3.

“We’ve been behind so fast in the last two games that you don’t even get to test Boston,” Babcock said. “We haven’t got to them.”

Even in the opening-game loss, the Bruins weren’t exactly lacking in defensive prowess, losing 1-0 in a contest in which neither offence got untracked. The system may not be exactly the same as Canada’s, but the philosophy is: Guard your own blue line, force the issue in the opposition end and check like hell over all 200 feet of the ice.

“Our defensive game is not just about the goaltender and the defence — it’s about a six-man unit out there,” Julien said. “Our forwards have done a great job coming back. (The Wings) have some guys with speed and skill if you give them the space.”

The Wings haven’t found any of that space and now are rapidly running out of time as well.

CAPTAIN CALLING?

If there’s one thing that could boost the Wings’ fight, it would be the return of captain Henrik Zetterberg, who had to leave Team Sweden in Sochi to have back surgery.

On Wednesday, the Detroit captain was a full participant in Wings practice for the first time since then, leading to a flurry of speculation that he would return for Game 4 on Thursday night.

With the Wings trailing the series 2-1 and witnessing the Bruins bulking up by the game, the prospect of Zetterberg’s return has big implications. Babcock immediately poured cold water on the idea, suggesting Zetterberg was just taking the place of Pavel Datsyuk, who was absent while his wife was in labour. At best, he’s a game-time decision.

“It felt good out there, but I’ve got to get cleared by the doctor,” Zetterberg said. “I’m just preparing myself to be better and get in better shape and try to get in as many game-like situations as I can in practice.”

Zetterberg’s Wings teammates are obviously hoping that return is imminent, based on what they saw on the ice Wednesday.

“I think he looks amazing,” defenceman Brendan Smith said. “It’s hard for me to tell (he’s hurt.) To get Zee back would be huge, it’s like getting an ace in your hand when you are playing cards. We’re hoping for that.”

BOYS TO MEN

While Babcock wouldn’t even hint at the possibility of Zetterberg’s return, he certainly isn’t shy about what his team, almost half of which was playing in the AHL last season, is lacking.

“The Stanley Cup playoffs are for men, each and every year,” Babcock said. “That’s how your earn the right to be a good player in the league.” ... Rookie Gustav Nyquist on what Zetterberg’s return would mean: “He calms this team down.” ... To say the scoring summaries in the series so far have been odd would be an understatement. The Wings have only scored two goals through three games, so not much to talk about there. The Bruins, meanwhile, have four players who have scored their first career NHL playoff goals. And the series leader in points? That would be Patrice Bergeron, whose lone goal (he also has two assists) was an empty-netter in Game 3 ... Bruins pest Brad Marchand on the Twitter uproar on Wednesday when it was suggested that he faked an injury after knee-on-knee contact with the Wings’ Smith. “That’s why they’re on Twitter and I’m in the NHL,” Bergeron told CSNNE’s Joe Haggerty.

QUICK HITS

Now that’s original. If the B’s advance, they would face a third consecutive Original Six team (Montreal) and fourth in two playoff seasons. They beat the Leafs in the opening round last year, you will recall, then Chicago in the Cup final and now are up on Detroit. Anyone for the Rangers in the Conference final to complete the journey? ... Speaking of facing the Habs next round, Julien had no interest in biting on that one. “Last time I looked, we are up just one game. Our minds are a long, long way from that.” ... Datsyuk’s wife had a baby girl on Wednesday and Niklas Kronwall’s girlfriend was in labour. So will both players be good to go in Game 4, coach? “They’re not giving birth,” Babcock said. “Their wives are.” ... While much of the analysis of the Bruins’ deal of Phil Kessel to the Leafs surrounds Tyler Seguin, Bruins defenceman Dougie Hamilton is becoming an increasingly large part of that storyline. The towering D-man scored the winner in Game 3 and could have had a hat trick in the first period alone. He has become a reliable defensive player as well. “You can see his confidence just going up and up,” Flames veteran Jarome Iginla said. “Not only his goal, but he plays a lot against the other team’s top players.”

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

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