- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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DETROIT -- The elephant in the room could not be ignored Thursday. The Detroit Red Wings, the NHL and the sport at large may witness the final game of a legend Friday night.
"It's tough to answer, I hope not," Nicklas Lidstrom said Thursday. "I want to continue to play [in these] playoffs and keep going with the team."
His Wings are down 3-0 in the Western Conference semifinals against the San Jose Sharks. The series may certainly not end Friday night here at Joe Louis Arena. A year ago, the Wings pounded the Sharks 7-1 to avoid a sweep. And given how Chicago rallied against Vancouver in the first round this year, it's not crazy to think this talented Wings team could find a way.
"If any team is going to do it, why not us?" Detroit winger Daniel Cleary told ESPN.com on Thursday.
The historical odds, however, suggest the Wings are likely done sometime over the next week. So while one could almost feel disrespectful asking "the question" Thursday, one can't help but doing so given the circumstances. And it's not just Lidstrom. There is also one of the greatest American players ever in Mike Modano, as well as cherished, longtime Wings such as Chris Osgood and Kris Draper.
"It's a question probably everyone is asking," said Osgood. "It's 3-0 and only three teams have ever come back from that. The questions are legitimate. We've had some guys here that have played together for a long time, but it's not something we're really thinking about right now."
For now, the old guard on this team just wants to extend this series by a game and take it from there. Thursday was a cliché-heavy day; that's unavoidable when a team is down 3-0. And yet, standing in the Wings' dressing room Thursday, you couldn't help but stare at No. 5 and wonder if you were about to watch the last game of a sensational Hall of Fame career.
"I'm going to wait until this season is over and make a decision as to what I want to do,'' said Lidstrom.
Can he really retire after a season where he has been nominated for another Norris Trophy?
"You know, that's one thing I haven't put in my mind yet," he said. "I'm still focused on playing right now. That's something I want to start thinking about when I'm done playing."
Lidstrom wasn't tipping his hand, and his teammates were no help.
"We have no idea," said Osgood. "To be honest, he's one of those guys that doesn't say much about it. The only person who might know is his wife, and she might not even know. We never ask him. It's kind of a taboo question. It's the same when Stevie [Yzerman] was near the end of his career. We don't ask. I don't know if it's because guys are scared to ask or what. It's out of respect. We're not going to go up to him and say, 'Are you done?' We don't want to ask him that. We never talk about it -- ever."
Here's something to consider: If the Wings do lose to the Sharks, will it be a tipping point for Lidstrom? Will back-to-back, second-round series losses to the Sharks be a message that the Wings have slipped from a perennial Cup contender to simply a very good team? Maybe we're wrong, but we don't think Lidstrom comes back at 41 to play on a good team. He'll come back if he believes the Wings are a great team. Otherwise, there's no point when you're a player with his standards and accomplishments.
"Oh, I think looking at the lineup we have and the depth we have, the core group of guys in their prime right now, I have no doubt they're going to be a successful team," Lidstrom said Thursday when asked about the Wings' future.
Maybe it was just a slip, but notice how Lidstrom referred to "they"?
Modano, 40, left very little doubt to his future. The end is near.
"It certainly crossed my mind after the game last night and today that this could be it," Modano said Thursday. "It came quick. You hate to think of that scenario. You'd like to extend this a little longer."
Regardless of how much longer the Wings will play this spring, Modano almost definitely wouldn't consider returning for another season.
"Right now if you asked me, I'd probably say no," he said. "I wouldn't entertain anything at this moment. So when July and August comes around, I don't know if I'd announce it right away or let the smoke settle a little bit."
Draper, an unrestricted free agent July 1 like Modano and Lidstrom, said he hadn't thought about the fact that Friday night could be it for him. When Grind Line buddy Kirk Maltby retired earlier this season, Draper at the time admitted the end was near for him, as well.
"I mean, I still know the end's coming," said the 39-year-old Draper. "I know I'm getting there. Do I think lacing up my skates and going out and playing tomorrow night that that's possibly my final game? Honestly, I haven't thought about it.
"I'll have as tough a time as anybody walking away from this game with how much I love it, what it means to me, how I appreciate it, all those things. I've seen guys walk away and how tough it's been. I look at myself. I know one day I'm going to have to do it. For sure, it's going to be the toughest thing that I've ever had to do because of how much everything means to me."
Osgood, 38, is also UFA July 1.
"If I was to decide not to play, I wouldn't decide until I spoke to [GM Ken Holland] and see what he wants to do, see what my options are," said Osgood. "As of right now, I still want to play again. I feel I can play. I just have to get healthy."
Lidstrom, Osgood, Draper, Modano there's a potential for real change here in Hockeytown, USA.
"I think so," Lidstrom said about the Wings' surviving whatever turnover is on the horizon. "I think they can still find draft [picks] in the later rounds, looking at the guys they have found like [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Pavel] Datsyuk; they've been doing such a great job that I think they'll be able to in the future, as well."
There's that "they" again. The reality is, you can't just read Lidstrom. He could play again, he may not. Some people will ask how he could possibly retire if he wins a seventh Norris Trophy in June. We say, what better way to go out but at the top?
Just in case, hockey fans should make sure to cherish whatever games are left in this series.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.