What a difference a year makes.
Last year the Wings were reeling after being eliminated in only 5 games in the first round of the NHL playoffs. A month later the best defenseman of his generation called it quits.
Detractors said Detroit was no longer a desired destination for star players after being given the old cold shoulder during NHL free agency last summer. Ken Holland was criticized for not pulling the trigger on a deadline deal this season.
Whispers that the Dead Wings era was once again upon us were turning into full-blown shouts. Traditionally, Detroit has proven to be one of the most resilient franchises in all of professional sports, but even for them this was a tall task.
Then, the regular season began and Detroit looked exactly like experts said they would for the first 44 games of the year.
But, in game 45 something clicked for the Red Wings.
Henrik Zetterberg put the team on his back, and let it be known that Detroit wasn’t missing the playoffs during his tenure as captain. Jimmy Howard put his net on lockdown, Danny DeKeyser plugged the leak on Detroit’s blueline, Mike Babcock put on his coaching cap, and the rest of the team put on their hard helmets and went to work.
Just like that, the Wings were in the playoffs for a 22nd consecutive season.
Detroit had every excuse to miss the playoffs, but they didn’t make any… it’s not the Red Wing way.
Instead, they hopped on a plane, flew out to California, won 3 overtime games, and upset the 2nd place Anaheim Ducks in round one. Almost everyone predicted a Blackhawk beat down in round two, but the Wings dug in and took a 3-1 series lead over the NHL’s kingpin.
A Brent Seabrook blast may have ended Detroit’s season, but it didn’t end their reason for optimism, for what looks to be a very bright future. Without a doubt the first two rounds served as a crash course for Red Wing rookies on what NHL playoff hockey is all about: intensity, puck battles, timely scoring, and sacrifice.
Consider it a lesson learned because Detroit’s youngest players passed this test with flying colours. In particular, the third line of Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson, and Damien Brunner made significant progress. They scored huge goals in both series, including two overtime goals, and were the Wings’ most dependable postseason line on a lot of nights.
As well, Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl made important strides in their careers as impactful NHL caliber defensemen. Mike Babcock showed a ton of faith in them by utilizing both in every critical situation.
These valuable experiences can’t be understated as this new generation of Red Wings moves forward.
Yet, we haven’t even touched on the success of Detroit’s AHL farm team this season. The Grand Rapids Griffins are currently battling in the Western Conference Finals, doggedly pursuing a Calder Cup title.
So, as much as things change in Detroit the more they stay the same. When it’s time for a veteran player to step aside, a younger player is always ready to fill that role because he’s been thoroughly schooled in Detroit doctrine since joining the organization.
In Detroit, the roster may change, but the Red Wing way of life stays the same.
If the last 22 seasons have proven anything, it’s this: in Hockeytown you don’t buy success… you breed it.