The Detroit Red Wings seek to make the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive season, easily the longest such streak in the NHL and currently also in all the four major North American team sports. For the third consecutive season, it seems as if Detroit will be in a close tussle just to qualify for the postseason, while the majority of the early years of the streak usually saw Detroit either as the top seed overall going into the playoffs or close to it. The Red Wings went into the Olympic break with 64 points and the final spot in the Eastern conference playoff race. Their last 10 games going into the break consisted of five victories, three losses, and two overtime losses as Detroit grabbed 12 of a potential 20 points. It wasn’t that long ago that it would be incomprehensible that Detroit would not notch back-to-back victories at home for the second time until January, much less point to it as a positive sign. However, that was exactly the situation the Red Wings found themselves in last month, with two key home victories over the Chicago Blackhawks and conference rival Montreal Canadiens.
There are multiple reasons for Detroit’s struggles in the first portion of the season. The primary reason is the inevitable personnel change after the retirement of so many of Detroit’s reliable anchors in recent seasons, most notably future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom. Although the franchise seemed to defer the inevitable transitional phase for several years-while still competing for and winning a Stanley Cup- it now comes contemporaneously with their move to the Eastern Conference, a move that the Red Wings organization and many of their fans have long desired. Despite the mixed results, an objective look into the Wings season indicates that the uninterrupted playoff streak will continue and, possibly, this team could become the type of team which antagonized Red Wings fans at times during the period of Detroit dominance between 1995 and 2009: a lower seeded playoff team that makes an unexpected run all the way to Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Detroit’s incredible run of playoff success is a source of pride for the organization as well as its loyal fan base. As well it should be in a sport that, more than any other, exemplifies the theory that any franchise has a chance to win the ultimate prize. There have been no back-to-back Stanley Cup winners since the Red Wings accomplished the feat in 1997 and 1998. During the time frame of the Wings playoff run, four defending Stanley Cup champions didn’t even qualify for the playoffs the following season. In the NHL, a league in which eight teams in each conference make the playoffs, it is not uncommon for an eighth seed to win a playoff round or advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup final. Los Angeles Kings accomplished this just two seasons ago in winning the Stanley Cup. Against this backdrop, what Detroit is done has been all the more impressive.
However, with success comes equivalent expectation. The Red Wings have not won the Stanley Cup since 2008 and have not been to the Stanley Cup finals since 2009. In the interim, bitter rival Chicago has captured two Stanley Cups. The fan base, having experienced a generation of success, has become spoiled in its expectations and the five long years since Detroit last raised the Stanley Cup weighs on them intensely.Frankly, since the late 90s there’s been an undercurrent of unease in the Red Wing Nation, a general feeling that this thing could not continue and the other shoe would drop any day now. It’s become a familiar circumstance for Red Wings fans to read those, in both the local and national media, who seem to be pining for the “end” of the Red Wings run as well as some barely hidden delight in diminishing Detroit’s accomplishments and/or elevating the successes of other franchises in such a way as to denigrate those of the Red Wings.
Last season’s scintillating playoff series against the Blackhawks, to a large extent, demonstrated the crossroads at which the franchise now finds itself. On one hand, the Wings pushed a more talented team to overtime of a game 7, on the other hand their inability to finish after leading 3-1 served to feed the gnawing suspicion that Detroit’s ceiling might be that of a competitive playoff team, but not a legitimate Cup contender, which is the only thing that ultimately matters to this franchise. The Red Wings moves in the off-season seemed to give credence to the thought that the organization felt that it could win a Cup with a few more pieces. The surprise signing of Daniel Alfredsson and acquisition of Stephen Weiss indicated a willingness to, yet again, push the rebuilding process off just a little more and roll with the veterans. So far, Detroit has not been able to consistently find chemistry with its mix of veterans on their last legs and young talent yearning for more ice time due to the rash of injuries which have seen only two regulars, Drew Miller and Kyle Quincey, play in every game.
In the weeks leading up to the Olympic break, the Red Wings started to get healthier with key players such as Alfredsson, Jonathan Ericsson, and Pavel Datsyuk returning to the lineup. Detroit’s main problem had been a surprising inability to score goals as well as, more surprisingly, not playing well at home. However, there is a silver lining in addition to the return of injured veterans. Young players have gotten valuable experience and shown they can be contributors for Detroit down the stretch. Gustav Nyquist, in particular, has shown enough to indicate he has a chance to be an upper echelon player in the NHL. The Olympics dealt a cruel blow to Detroit in the form of Captain Henrik Zetterberg exacerbating his back injury while playing for Sweden, but the sheer number of Red Wings on the rosters of most of the competing countries in Sochi speaks to the overall talent of the organization. There is no doubt that there is work to be done and, if Zetterberg’s injury keeps him out for extended period of time much less the entire season, the Wings run for 23 straight postseason appearances could be in jeopardy.
The view from here is not pessimistic, however. Detroit’s top talent has simply not had the chance to play together healthy for much of the year. However, when the big guns have been on ice they have produced for the most part with the notable exception of Stephen Weiss, who has also battled injury problems. There is no way that a healthier mix Datsyuk, Alfredsson, Johan Franzen, and Justin Abdelkader to go along with the Red Wings young talent is not going to produce down the stretch. One gets the feeling that head coach Mike Babcock really likes this team. Detroit shows grit on both ends of the ice and there is room for improvement both offensively and defensively. Certainly, that can be looked at as underperforming and, in many ways, it is. However, it should give Detroit fans hope in that there is unquestionably room for improvement.
The bottom line is that the Red Wings, as of this writing, hold a playoff spot – though tenuous – in spite of not playing anything close to their best hockey. As the NHL goes into its stretch run after the Olympic break, one thinks that the Red Wings will begin to really realize the benefit of playing in the Eastern Conference with its less exhausting travel requirements. Further, the improved play of goaltender Jimmy Howard after his near disastrous start to the season bodes well for Detroit. In predicting how the Wings will finish the 2013 – 2014 season, the wild-card is definitely Henrik Zetterberg and his eventual return from his back injury. This writer is of the opinion that, even without Zetterberg, Detroit will extend its playoff streak to 23 seasons. Should Zetterberg return at any point during the remainder of the regular season, there is no reason that the Red Wings should not pass Toronto, Tampa Bay, and Montréal to finish second in their division behind Boston.
Once the playoffs begin anything can happen, as Detroit showed last season in knocking off the Anaheim Ducks and taking the eventual Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks to the brink. These are not the halcyon days of the 90s and early 2000s when Red Wings fans knew without a doubt that their team was one of the top two or three in the league. However, this is a team that has enough depth and veteran leadership that can make it one of these surprising teams we seem to see every year in the NHL come playoff time. In order for that to happen, of course, Detroit has to make the playoffs, and the firm belief here is that they will do just that.