The Detroit Red Wings currently hold the longest active playoff streak in the NHL having made the post-season for the past 22 years, but it is not yet clear if they will be able to extend the streak to 23. Due to a rash of injuries and inconsistent play in the 2013-14 season, Detroit’s ticket to the playoffs has not been automatic like in years past. The Yzerman days are long gone. Nicklas Lidstrom is not lacing them up anytime soon. And currently, captain Henrik Zetterberg is not even with the team. Yet, as playoff hopes in Detroit lie in the balance, the under-manned Red Wings are desperately holding on for a playoff birth.
After defeating the red hot Boston Bruins 3-2 on Wednesday night, the Wings pushed themselves into seventh place in the Eastern Conference, one point behind sixth place Philadelphia, and three points up on Columbus sitting in the eighth and final playoff spot. However, none of the mentioned teams have yet clinched a spot in the post-season, and both Toronto and Washington still have a shot to unseat one of the playoff hopefuls. Though, from here on out the wings have control over their own destiny. Win and they are in. Lose and they are out. It does not get much simpler in sports.
Staying ahead of the curve in the final six games of the season will be no easy feat, however, the wings have one advantage and that is the fact that they have been battling all season long. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins have had more players collectively miss games, though they have had Sidney Crosby for the full 76. Meanwhile Detroit has played 37 games without their best player, Pavel Datsyuk due to a lingering knee injury, and has also gone 31 games without their captain Henrik Zetterberg who underwent back surgery in February.
But not only have the Red Wings primary stars missed significant time, but power forward Johan Franzen has missed 27 games, oft-injured speedster Darren Helm has missed 40 games, high profile off-season acquisition Stephen Weiss has been out since December after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia, veteran defender Jonathan Ericsson is out of the line up indefinitely, goal-scoring grinder Dan Cleary is scratched until further notice with an injured knee, and a series of other players have found themselves in and out of the line up all season long. The only Red Wings players to appear in all 76 games are Drew Miller, a depth forward at best, and Kyle Quincey, a severely under-performing defenseman.
But in the absence of the usual performers some new faces have stepped up to keep Detroit’s playoff chances afloat. The most noticeable being forward Gustav Nyquist who has erupted in the second half of the season, scoring 23 goals in his last 28 games. The 5-11 forward from Sweden has been a revelation for coach Mike Babcock, who has had to shuffle his line up more than a blackjack dealer does a deck of cards. Nyquist, unknown to virtually anyone but Red Wings fans, has been a true consistent offensive force despite the ever-changing faces on the Detroit bench, and that has elevated him to play alongside Johan Franzen, and trade deadline acquisition David Legwand, on Babcock’s make-shift first line.
Other young players such as Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, and even former first round pick Riley Sheahan have been forced to play significant minutes for this season’s Red Wings squad. It has not been the easiest or most comfortable way to transition to the pro game, with linemates changing from night to night, but the youngsters are learning on the job and contributing admirably as the Red Wings desperately hold on for a playoff birth, and try to keep the streak going.
If they can find a way to stay on top of the teams nipping at their heels, reinforcements will arrive for a playoff run. Pavel Datsyuk is expected to return to the lineup as early as Friday night’s tilt with the Buffalo Sabres. At what capacity, and how much ice time he will see is yet to be determined, but there is no better sight for Detroit fans than seeing number 13 back in uniform. Unfortunately for beloved captain, Henrik Zetterberg, his earliest estimated return is for around April 18, provided there are no setbacks during his rehabilitation, which would mean Detroit would most likely need to advance to the second round to retain his services.
It seems that this season poses a transitional period that is swiftly approaching in Detroit. Just as the likes of Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, and Nicklas Lidstrom passed the torch onto Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall, it appears that possibly a new age of stars are on the rise. Young players like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, and Riley Sheahan just may be gearing up to lead the next great reign of hockey in Detroit for years to come. And anyone can pull up a seat and watch the future on display right now, as NHL unknowns make a name for themselves, battling alongside Pavel datsyuk and other veterans of Hockeytown lore, while the Red Wings are desperately holding on for a playoff birth, and a chance to keep the streak alive.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky
Detroit Free Press