Well, they did it. By beating Dallas 3-0 on Saturday night, the Detroit Red Wings advanced to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 22nd year in a row, the fifth-longest streak in NHL history and a current North American professional sports record. It’s a record that has persevered through three lockouts and culture changes. It has survived the capped and uncapped eras. It has survived in the wake of Yzerman’s retirement and Lidstrom’s. It has been passed down from Murray to Bowman to Lewis to Babcock. Making the playoffs has become a way of life for the organization and its widespread legion of fans. But this year’s run to the seventh seed in the West (while somewhat disappointing for a franchise which hasn’t finished below fifth since the 1980′s) was special. In this transition mode (or “rebuild” according to Ken Holland), with a new captain, with previously unthinkable late-season drama, this playoff appearance may go down as one of the most memorable.
The seeds of a Red Wings transition really began to be sown after Game 7 of the 2009 Finals in which the Wings were bested by Max freaking Talbot and the Penguins in Detroit. That offseason cost Marian Hossa and Mikael Samuelsson their spots on the Red Wings as Holland had to deal with mounting cap issues in the wake of the loss. The next two years resulted in disappointing conference semifinal losses for the Wings, as Jimmy Howard slowly ascended to #1 goaltender and a youth infusion took place while older players began to seek employment elsewhere or retire (see Brian Rafalski). When Lidstrom retired after the Game 5 loss in Nashville and Holland failed to land Zach Parise and Ryan Suter (both are on a team that are seeded lower than the Wings–LOL WILD) the transition began in earnest. Henrik Zetterberg became the captain. Joakim Andersson, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, and Brendan Smith all got nightly roles (for the most part) as the Wings leaned heavily on Grand Rapids to supply them with guys to replace the breaking or broken Wings (Todd Bertuzzi, Carlo Colaiacovo, Darren Helm…). The inconsistent form the Wings displayed for half the year was unsurprising to some but like a deathblow to many. “What’s going on here?” “Why are they struggling? They’re the Red Wings!” “Give the rookies time with Datsyuk!” “FIRE HOLLAND!”
How quickly some forgot that the Red Wings still had an arsenal of experienced and wonderfully talented veterans on whom they could
ride. When the Wings were in tenth with about two weeks left in the season, the veteran Wings went to work. Datsyuk and Zetterberg were absolutely scorching over the last week and a half. Zetterberg in particular turned his play up a notch, leading the way like the best captains do. Johan Franzen finally started to pot some goals. Even the much-maligned Valtteri Filppula got in on the action. And, most importantly, Jimmy Howard turned into an elite goalie. The Wings weren’t used to having to battle for a postseason spot, but battle they did. And they won. It’s not just a testament to their talent or their coaching. It’s a testament to quickly adjusting to a new scenario and putting experience to work.
THAT is why this playoff appearance is arguably more satisfying than some of the ones where the Wings would clinch the Central with 10 games left and win President’s Trophies. They had to earn this one. Now, can they make that hard work hold up against Anaheim? We’ll see. Either way, you can bet the Wings will be competing and clawing their way forward.