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Detroit Red Wings Nicklas Lidstrom (5) celebrates his goal with teammate Brain Rafalski in the first period against the Phoenix Coyotes during Game 1 of their NHL Western Conference quarter-final hockey game in Glendale, Arizona April 14, 2010. (JOSHUA LOTT/REUTERS)
Detroit Red Wings Nicklas Lidstrom (5) celebrates his goal with teammate Brain Rafalski in the first period against the Phoenix Coyotes during Game 1 of their NHL Western Conference quarter-final hockey game in Glendale, Arizona April 14, 2010. (JOSHUA LOTT/REUTERS)

Is this Lidstrom's last run? Add to ...

It's the one question Nicklas Lidstrom can't quite seem to escape these days, even in the midst of a compelling first-round playoff series with the Phoenix Coyotes and even as he logs more minutes than anyone else in it.

"What's next, Nick?"

Rumours of retirement are being whispered in the halls of Joe Louis Arena, what with the Detroit Red Wings captain turning 40 next Wednesday - just a day after a potential Game 7 in Phoenix, should the series go the distance.

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With Lidstrom's contract expiring this summer and the series tied 2-2, his final NHL appearance could even come this weekend if Phoenix takes the next two games.

Not that anyone's betting on it.

"It's going to come sooner or later," Lidstrom said, chuckling at all the attention his milestone birthday is getting of late. "I'm getting up there in age, people are watching me closely and think something's going to happen, but … nothing's really changed. I know what I have to do. I feel the same out there."

He also, incredibly, still looks very much like the same player - even 19 years on in a career regarded as one of the best in history for a blueliner.

As always, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock leans heavily on Lidstrom whenever he can. His ice time may be down from four or five years ago, but only slightly - the difference between 28 minutes a night and 25 or 26 - but Lidstrom still plays every shift, every game against opponents' top lines and was again a plus player (plus-22) this season.

The fifth-oldest skater in the league this year, he played more minutes than all but six others.

Some critics have pointed to Lidstrom's falling scoring totals (nine goals and 49 points) as evidence of a decline, but his production is really only down on the power play, where every Red Wings player suffered. Detroit as a whole scored 31 fewer goals on the man-advantage than a year ago.

Lidstrom continues to get plenty of respect from the opposition, too.

Coyotes coach Dave Tippett was asked after his team's 4-2 win in Game 3, where Lidstrom was minus-3, if he'd noticed any "change" in his play over the years.

"No, not at all," Tippett said. "He's still one of those players who has a huge impact on every game he plays. He's such a smart player. One game, in that guy's career, if you're going to belittle somebody for being minus-3 in one game, you're going down the wrong track right there."

Much of the reason Lidstrom's talents sometimes go unappreciated comes back to how subtle his game is. He's not flashy and doesn't hit or block shots, but is always in position and far stronger than his 190-pound frame suggests.

At plus-431 in his career, the 11th-best mark in NHL history, he didn't even win a Norris Trophy as the league's best defenceman until age 31. Nine years later, he has six piled in his trophy case, along with one Conn Smythe and four Stanley Cups.

Lidstrom finished third in voting for the Norris last season when Zdeno Chara won and will likely be pushed out of the top three altogether this year by a trio of youngsters - Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty and Mike Green.

He remains vital to the Red Wings' success, however, and retirement - whenever it comes - will leave a huge hole in their lineup. Consider that when Lidstrom was on the ice at even strength, Detroit outscored its opponent this season at a rate of 2.96 goals a game to 2.24.

When he wasn't on the ice, the Wings were outscored 2.44 to 1.90.

As for what's next, what little Lidstrom will say seems to indicate he won't take on a role within the Red Wings organization - or with any NHL team.

"Right now, the plan is to eventually move back to Sweden," he said, adding he'd like to work in a role to help his hometown team in Vasteras, just outside Stockholm, return to the top division of Swedish hockey.

"I've thought about it a little bit. But I haven't really made up my mind what I want to do."

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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