NASHVILLE -- It was about as ideal a finish to an athletic career as anyone could dream up. Last spring, Bruins forward Mark Recchi raised the Stanley Cup in British Columbia, the province where he started playing hockey. He got to leave the game on his own terms, officially announcing his retirement just moments after he passed the Cup to a teammate.
"I couldn't ask for anything more, really," Recchi said after Boston's Game 7 win in Vancouver, with his teammates celebrating around him on the ice with their friends and family. "I'm going to ride off into the sunset and enjoy myself."
That's how you draw it up. But that's not usually how it plays out.
In eight days, Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom turns 42 years old. He's fighting a foot injury that is limiting his game and keeping him off the penalty kill. He's still an effective defenseman for the Red Wings, but there have been times when he's actually looked mortal during this series. Something that never happens.
He's been taking retirement on a year-by-year basis for a while now, with two factors contributing most to his decision: Can he play at an elite level? Are the Red Wings legitimate Cup contenders? Both answers have always come up yes, but tonight Detroit finds itself one loss away from a first-round exit in five games. It's impossible not to think the end is as close as it's ever been for Lidstrom, although those thoughts aren't seeping into his head quite yet.
"I don't think like that. I think I've learned from other years; I try to push that aside and try to play a real solid game and come out with a win," Lidstrom said after practice on Thursday. "That's something I'll look back at once the season is over. Once the summer comes, you start thinking about the future. That comes into your thought process again."
Mike Babcock has always been the guy to turn to when it comes to predicting Lidstrom's retirement. The coach has never been wrong in calling Lidstrom's plans, and during the Winter Classic announcement in February, he was very confident that Lidstrom would return. Lidstrom was playing well and the team was closing in on an NHL record for consecutive home wins.
"He'll be back. He's too good to quit and our team's too good. I was concerned this year might be his last if our team wasn't good enough, and our team is good enough," Babcock said in February.
On Thursday he hedged his bet. Even if just a little.
"I"d be shocked if he retires, but I've been shocked before," Babcock said.
His teammates have said there hasn't been a "Win for Nick" speech internally, or any hints from their captain as to what the future holds. Mostly, they try not to think about it because, as we saw during the regular season when he was hurt, it's not pretty when he's not around.
"We're saying he has a few more years left," said Valtteri Filppula. "We don't even want to throw that out there yet."
Said goalie Jimmy Howard: "It's crossed my mind; [I] try not to think about it. It's been quite the honor to play with Nick. I hope he comes back but that's up to him."
GM Ken Holland has quietly been bolstering his defense with depth in case Lidstrom leaves. That was part of the attraction in acquiring Kyle Quincey near the trade deadline even if, in retrospect, the more pressing need might have been another forward.
If Lidstrom and Brad Stuart don't return next season, Detroit will still have Jonathan Ericsson, Niklas Kronwall, Ian White, Jakub Kindl, Quincey and Brendan Smith available on defense. They will be the front-runner to sign Ryan Suter if he ultimately decides to test free agency. But if Nashville beats Detroit in five games, you can't help but think Suter will have second thoughts as to whether the Red Wings are the best option for him as a place to try to win a Stanley Cup. There are other potential options on the UFA market -- Dennis Wideman, Matt Carle, Barret Jackman -- but nobody close to Lidstrom or Suter.
If Lidstrom is truly on the fence with his decision, and it's impossible to get a read on the veteran, it makes each game from here on out even more crucial.
"Obviously, you want to win for everybody on the team, [but] definitely for a guy like that you want to do your best to make this a good run," Filppula said. "We still have a chance for this; hopefully things start going our way."
Very interesting stuff from the CBC's Elliotte Friedman on Patrick Roy's future with the Montreal Canadiens. One friend of Roy's set the odds at 50/50 that he will be the coach there next season, while others think his personality is better suited to be the GM since his emotions might get the better of him after tough losses.
"That is certainly true," an NHL executive told Friedman. "If you're going to bring him to Montreal, you must make certain to have strong people around him ... people he respects. Roy's personality makes it inevitable that there will be blowups, but you can eliminate some by surrounding him with people who can control his emotion."
Bob Hartley, Roy's former coach, was mentioned in the report, and Hartley certainly raised his stock by going to Switzerland to coach this season and then leading his Zurich Lions to a championship this week. I sent Hartley a congratulatory e-mail, and he said it was former Thrashers, Blackhawks and Canucks defenseman Steve McCarthy who scored the game winner. "With 2.3 seconds left to the game, Big Steve McCarthy [scored after] scramble in front of the net," Hartley wrote back. Hartley now has coached teams to championships in the QMJHL, AHL, NHL and in Switzerland, and he has to be in the mix for the openings in Montreal and Calgary. He has one more year remaining on his contract in Switzerland but has declined to share whether he has an out for an NHL head-coaching offer.
• Give Roberto Luongo credit for how he has handled losing his job to Cory Schneider this postseason. Luongo hardly was to blame for Vancouver's first two losses, but the coaching staff made the switch anyway, a decision associate coach Rick Bowness called the hardest of Alain Vigneault's recent career.
"There was no question that was probably the most difficult decision Alain has had to make in our tenure here," Bowness told the Vancouver Sun. "That's what it was. You have no idea how incredibly difficult that was because of the amount of respect we have for Roberto, not only as a goalie and as a professional, but as a man. Luongo has handled the demotion with class."
"He's been great," Daniel Sedin told the Sun. "That's what this team is all about. Whoever is in the lineup, we're going to support each other, and he's been the same. He's really upbeat. He wants to win this series as bad as everyone."