Detroit Red Wings: With Playoff Berth Acheived, Is It Now Stanley Cup or Bust?
It was the goal set at the beginning of this abbreviated season that spoke volumes about the new reality surrounding the Detroit Red Wings: just make the playoffs.
On Saturday night, with a 3-0 win over the Dallas Stars, the Red Wings did just that.
However, though the Red Wings have now extended the longest consecutive playoff run in North American pro sports to 22 years, that they needed to wait until the final game of the season to do so shows just how different this team is than the 21 other teams that preceded it.
While its true that the past two seasons in Detroit have yielded some tense moments at which the playoff streak looked to be in jeopardy, it wasn't until this year that fans truly and soberly needed to prepare themselves for life without playoff hockey.
While in years past, most Red Wings teams have legitimately had a "Stanley Cup or bust" mentality entering the season, this team would have been foolish to dream as big as that.
Now that the Red Wings are once again playoff bound, would dreaming so big still be as silly as it would have been at the start of the season?
It may not be as crazy as one might think.
Let's consider how the Red Wings got here in the first place.
The Red Wings suffered through 241 man-games lost to injury in just 48 games played this season.
Such an obese number would have been devastating over a full 82-game season, suffering such losses in half the time should have been catastrophic.
It was the Red Wings' ability to bring up (or in one case, acquire) young talent such as Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson and Danny DeKeyser that helped them ultimately avoid disaster.
The Red Wings, so used to dominating offensively, found themselves struggling to score for most of this season.
A team that in years past could easily put up five or six goals a night now was struggling to find the back of the net more often than not.
Despite this offensive anemia, the Red Wings managed to secure enough wins to punch their ticket to the playoffs.
Did I say "the Red Wings"? I'm sorry, I meant "Jimmy Howard".
The Red Wings (now, franchise) netminder has been one of the most consistent and competitive players for the team all season long.
With rare exception, Howard has been an absolute rock in net this season and there's not a player on this team that doesn't realize they largely have him to thank for their trip to the playoffs.
With the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom last May, the burden and near impossible task of replacing his leadership was put on the rather narrow shoulders of Henrik Zetterberg.
The newly minted Wings captain not only had the obligation to attempt to fill the skates of a legend, but also ensure that his team's legendary playoff streak was not broken on his watch.
Zetterberg has proven that he's exactly the type of leader this team needs.
He has put this team on his back for long stretches during the season and has lead by example with his work ethic, determination and competitiveness.
The Red Wings figured after Game 44 that they would need to win their last four games to really have a shot of extending their playoff streak.
Zetterberg responded to this need by scoring 10 points over that stretch.
Finally, when faced with a swath of new players, aging veterans, a bulging sick bay and the loss of one hockey legend, many coaches might have found the duty, let alone the ability, to somehow steer this team into the playoffs nauseating, if not impossible.
Mike Babcock may have an iron stomach, but he most certainly has an iron will.
The Red Wings head coach has managed to adapt on the fly to motivate a team that not only looks drastically different than the one he coached a year ago, but was looking different from game to game this season.
He has every player, from young rookies to weathered veterans, buying into his system that is coming together just at the right time.
If Mike Babcock isn't on the short list of Jack Adams award nominees, he damn well should be.
The Red Wings made the playoffs because they had the depth to weather injuries, great goaltending, superb leadership from their best player and a coach who knows how to get the best out of everyone.
Depth, goaltending, leadership, coaching.
Those four things are what Stanley Cup champions are made of, and if that's what the Red Wings have relied on to this point, well, thinking about extending their season into June may not be that crazy after all.
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