The Detroit Red Wings were pushed to the brink of elimination on Wednesday with a 3-2 overtime loss in Game 5 of their first-round matchup with the Anaheim Ducks, which will send the series back to Joe Louis Arena with the home team facing a must-win situation.
Even if the Red Wings' playoff run ended on Friday, or Sunday back in Anaheim, there are lots of positives to take from this season that should make hockey fans in Detroit excited for the team's future as a member of the Eastern Conference.
When former captain Nicklas Lidstrom and veteran defenseman Brad Stuart left the organization following last year's playoff exit, some fans were concerned that No. 1 goaltender Jimmy Howard would struggle in 2013 without a great group of defensemen in front of him.
To his credit, Howard has calmed those concerns with an impressive regular season and a fine performance in this series with the Ducks. Even with a weaker blue line, Howard still matched his save percentage from 2011-12 (.923%) and improved his GAA (2.13 last year to 2.10 this season).
He's also played better against the Ducks than he did versus the Nashville Predators in the first round last season. Howard's playoff save percentage has risen from .888 a year ago to .903 now, and he's given his team a good chance to win four of the five games in this series.
Detroit's Game 5 defeat was Howard's finest performance of the series. He made a number of huge saves, including two on former Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry, once in the first period and again in the final moments of regulation. If he didn't make an astounding 18 saves in the first period, the game would have gotten away from the Red Wings quickly.
"It's too bad that we wasted a really good effort by Howie. It's amazing how good he is," said Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall after the game (per MLive.com).
"It doesn't feel to good not being able to get one for him tonight. Howie came up huge for us, kept us in the game, gave us a chance, that's all we can ask for."
Howard has proven that he's a capable of being the No. 1 goalie of this franchise for a long time, and fortunately for the Red Wings, the two parties were able to reach a six-year contract extension during the regular season worth $31.75 million over six seasons with a team-friendly $5.29 million salary cap hit.
On the blue line, 24-year-old defenseman Brendan Smith has grown a lot this season and has a bright future ahead of him at the NHL level.
His decision-making, especially in the defensive zone, has mightily improved since Game 1 of the regular season. He plays with a high compete level and is already excelling in a top-four role despite his lack of experience. Smith and defense partner Kyle Quincey have formed a solid duo on the blue line, and these young players will continue to develop and learn from veterans such as Niklas Kronwall.
One future star on the Red Wings blue line is Dan DeKeyser, who signed with the team in March after his collegiate career ended and made an immediate impact at the NHL level. The former Western Michigan star is a stay-at-home defenseman who plays a physical game and also has rapidly improving offensive skills. Surgery on his thumb ended his 2013 season early, but DeKeyser has the potential to be an elite defenseman in just a few years.
At forward, the Red Wings have several talented young players to be excited about. Damien Brunner has the makings of a star in this league with his incredible offensive skill, which includes a great shot, smooth skating and impressive speed.
He tallied 26 points (12 goals, 14 assists) in 44 regular season games and currently leads the team in playoff scoring with five points (two goals, three assists). The 27-year-old rookie has made a quick transition to the NHL from the Swiss National A League, and will spend the prime years of his career in Detroit if the team re-signs him in the summer (he's a UFA).
Another young forward with a promising future is 23-year-old winger Gustav Nyquist, who scored the winning goal in overtime of Detroit's Game 2 victory in Anaheim. He brings tremendous speed, an accurate wrist shot and polished playmaking abilities to the lineup. Nyquist will likely be a full-time Red Wings player next season following a very successful career in the AHL, and it's going to be exciting watching him develop.
Detroit also has a number of top-tier forward prospects with extraordinary talents who have yet to make their NHL debuts. Teemu Pulkkinen, Martin Frk, Calle Jarnkrok and Tomas Jurco all have the potential to be top-six forwards, while top prospects Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan have already tasted NHL action.
In addition to a lot of good young players for the future that are earning experience in a winning environment, the Red Wings also have the best head coach in the NHL in Mike Babcock. He's been to the Stanley Cup Finals three times (twice with Detroit) with one victory and won an Olympic gold medal leading Team Canada in 2010.
Will Detroit make the playoffs next season in the East?
Coaching plays a very important role in the NHL playoffs, and very few coaches do a better job of managing superstars or coming up with in-game adjustments than Babcock. He will make sure that the young players on this team develop to their maximum potential.
For years, Detroit has been among the oldest teams in the league, but the strides that its young players have made this season will give the organization a lot of hope for a successful future in a new era of Red Wings hockey.
With a good foundation of young talent, the best head coach and general manager in the NHL and an ownership committed to winning, the Red Wings' recent run of success isn't going to end anytime soon.