Being the team that makes the playoffs every year for the last 21 means there are certain expectations when the Winged Wheel adorns your sweater. Annually challenging for the President's trophy and Division title puts a bullseye on your back as well.
When the Detroit Red Wings take the ice, home or away, they are the measuring stick for everyone else. They get a 100 percent effort from their opponent every night.
Jumping out to a solid division and conference lead surprised nobody, and Detroit headed into the All-Star break as the favorites to win the Stanley Cup yet again. They couldn't lose at home for almost two months, meanwhile they had a hard time winning on the road. Once the aura of the Joe Louis "streak" was broken, it seemed that Detroit couldn't win again, at least not with any consistency. This was highlighted during the last week of the season when the Wings, with home ice to play for, could not secure the fourth seed in the West.
Top to bottom, the roster in Detroit bows to no other team in terms of talent. The coaching staff and front office are universally regarded as the best or near the best in the league. A rabid, if not sometimes spoiled, fan base packs their home rink every night. So what has the problem been down the stretch? Every year there has been a swoon in late February or early March, but this time it seemed like the Red Wings couldn't get their groove back.
The core of the roster has been essentially the same for the past five years, with a few nominal additions and subtractions here and there. The team finished with 102 points, over 100 for the 12th consecutive year. They scored 248 goals, tied for fifth in the league, while giving up 203, for sixth in the NHL. The plus-45 goal differential was tied for fourth-best overall, but special teams were pretty pedestrian (22nd PP, 21st PK) given the talent Detroit rolls out every night.
So how can we not feel good about a hockey club that finished 20 games over .500? The Red Wings backed into the playoffs, losing three of the last four at home. The last regulation win for Detroit over a playoff team was close to a month ago (LA at home 4-3) March 9.
Their win at St. Louis, in a shootout, was a snapshot of the entire season. They came out strong against a great team and looked dominant for the first period. In the second period, they sat back and let the Blues dictate the pace. More of the same in the third as St. Louis broke the deadlock with a shorthanded goal on an awful Detroit turnover. Another turnover in the defensive end saw St. Louis go up 2-0. A furious comeback in the last seven minutes tied the game, before Detroit won in a shootout.
Watching that game start to finish, as objectively as I could, my analysis was that even though Detroit played with more skill, St. Louis worked harder, almost the entire game. The goaltending was a push, as Jimmy Howard seems to be sharp again, but I've never wanted to see Darren Helm on the ice as much in my life.
Nashville poses as big a threat to Detroit's playoff survival as anyone. They play with intensity for 60 minutes (plus if needed), and now have more skilled players than ever before. Their goalie is streaky, but is currently on a lava-hot streak. Most importantly though, Nashville has confidence that they can not only skate with Detroit, home or away, but they can beat them too.
The 2011-'12 Red Wings are every bit as talented as the Stanley Cup years, possibly stronger in some areas. They have shown this year that they can beat any team on any night. Unfortunately, they have also shown the ability/indifference to lose to anyone on any given night. Given what is at stake over the next week, we'll hopefully see a motivated team that can dominate like they did the first part of the year.
The matchup with Nashville could be the very best of the first round, as there has been some animosity festering between the two teams. With the amount of talent on both sides of the ice and in each goal, we should expect every game to be competitive and intense. Let's hope Detroit can stay focused on the prize, and show the rest of the NHL that they are still a force to be reckoned with.
Follow Rob Kirk on twitter @theRobKirk