If it’s too harsh to say that the Red Wings’ hopes of winning a Stanley Cup ride squarely on the shoulders of a Hank and a Mule, tough. Sugar-coating it isn’t going to change things, anyway.

The Red Wings, 3-1 winners last night in Game 1 of their first-round series with Nashville, are only going to go as far as forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen will take them. Sorry. It’s not going to be anything erratic from goalie Dom Hasek that will do them in. Not going to be another ill-timed injury to defenseman Niklas Kronwall. Not going to be the absence of scoring from the so-called secondary forwards. It’ll be — and mark my words — a catastrophic lack of production from Zetterberg (Hank) and Franzen (The Mule) that will send them home early.

Notice no mention of Pavel Datsyuk, or Dan Cleary, or Tomas Holmstrom. No foolish thoughts that Darren McCarty can pull a Joey Kocur and step up from retirement to be some sort of “x” factor. No, the hopes rest with Hank Z and The Mule, and if that makes you frown, it can’t be helped. The Red Wings are nowhere without Zetterberg creating something out of nothing and assailing the net with one scoring chance after another, and without Franzen outmuscling opponents for the puck and making himself a nuisance in front of the goal.

Some might say those duties are also those shared by Datsyuk and Holmstrom. This might be true, but they are secondary now to what Zetterberg and Franzen are capable of doing.

Those two were at it again last night.

Zetterberg (top) and Franzen hold their team’s Cup
fate in their hands

Franzen scored first, and Zetterberg broke a 1-1 tie in the third period for the game-winner. He added an empty-netter for two goals. Franzen, especially, has been on a roll. He’s averaging a goal-a-game for the past 12 or so contests. And his hot streak has continued into the playoffs, a place where streaks, good and bad, have been known to disappear. Sometimes the NHL playoffs seem to have some sort of weird force field around them that makes whatever happened from October to April moot.

Which is my point. If Franzen and Zetterberg are not scoring, if they are not leading the team in points once we’re several games into the post-season, then there’s trouble brewing. Do not count on a Fernando Pisani to save the day. Remember Pisani? He went ballistic in the 2006 playoffs, vexing the Red Wings and two other teams before almost leading his Oilers to an upset over Carolina in the Cup Finals.

This is taking nothing from the dazzling Datsyuk, the tireless Cleary, or any other of the competent Red Wings forwards. But every team has its cream, no matter how many stars it might employ. Typically, a team wins the Cup because its best players are, well, its best players. It’s been true in Detroit, and it’s been true in other cities. The opposite? A seemingly well-oiled team has many times gagged because its best players ended up being more appropriately displayed on the side of a milk carton than in the game program. That’s happened here, too.

Hank and The Mule. Saddle those guys up. Sorry to break it to you.