So this is how the other half lives, when it comes to playoff hockey.
This is what it’s like to be a low seed, prohibitive underdog.
This is what it’s like to have a goalie as hot as a firecracker, turning into Mr. Zero against a high-powered offense.
This is what it’s like to see the players on the other team frustrated, angry and telling themselves that the breaks will eventually go their way.
This is what it’s like to squeak into the playoffs, flying under all the so-called experts’ radar.
This is what it’s like to upset a high seed in the first round and vex another high seed in the second round.
This is what it’s like to play loosey goosey while the other guys are gripping their sticks like they’re strangling a chicken.
This is what it’s like to watch the other coach juggle lines as frantically as a circus performer.
This is what it’s like to actually have fun, instead of carrying the weight of Stanley Cup-or-bust expectations on the shoulders.
This is what it’s like to have a team short on talent but long on spunk.
This is what it’s like to be Cinderella on skates.
For 22 straight springs, the Red Wings have qualified for the playoffs. In about 20 of those years, they were in the conversation for the Stanley Cup.
The 1990-91 season is when the streak began. The Red Wings were a playoff pretender that year, not a contender. They were 34-38-8 and were considered easy first-round fodder for the St. Louis Blues.
But the Red Wings kicked up their heels and took a 3-1 series lead over the Blues before collapsing into defeat, 4-3.
That was the last time—22 years ago—when the Red Wings didn’t have a team considered Stanley Cup worthy.
They didn’t always win it, of course. Sometimes they were blotted out in the very first round. But when those regular seasons ended, NHL observers pretty much threw the Red Wings into the mix of teams who had a shot at hoisting the Cup.
Not this year.
The string of playoff appearances continued this spring, but the streak of being a Cup contender ended.
The Red Wings had to hustle just to make the playoffs, number one. They had to win their final four games to nip the rest of the pack at the wire. Teams that do that can’t seriously be considered Cup-ish.
Going back even further, to the start of the season, hockey folks had the Red Wings’ grave dug and the team lowered three feet into it.
There was no Nicklas Lidstrom, most famously. The All-Universe defenseman retired last summer, and according to the puck brains, Lidstrom took with him any real chance that the Red Wings could continue to be a playoff team, much less one that could make a long run.
The Red Wings were as young and as inexperienced heading into this season as any Red Wings team in recent memory. In fact, you might have to go back further than that 1990-91 team to find a team this youthful wearing the Winged Wheel on its collective chests—certainly when it comes to playoff hockey.
Not that this team, which is on the verge of swatting the mighty Chicago Blackhawks out of the playoffs, doesn’t have its veterans.
There are still your Hank Zetterbergs and your Pavel Datsyuks and your Danny Clearys and your Todd Bertuzzis and your Johan Franzens.
But the list of recently retired Red Wings reads like a mini franchise Who’s Who.
Since 2009, the Red Wings have lost the following to retirement: Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Darren McCarty, Chris Chelios, Tomas Holmstrom and Chris Osgood. There are about 215 Stanley Cups in there.
This year’s squad?
It’s not exactly made up of a bunch of grizzled playoff veterans.
Beyond Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Cleary, Bertuzzi, Justin Abdelkader, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson and Johan Franzen, the Red Wings are made up of mostly rookies, second- and third-year guys, and a few re-treads.
It’s a patchwork lineup—the likes of which have spoiled Red Wings playoff parties in years past, back in the days of 100-plus point seasons and when anything less than a Stanley Cup was considered to be failure.
There’s another aspect of these playoffs that has often been played out by the Red Wings’ opponents over the years, and one that has spurred this spring’s surprise uprising.
That would be the goaltending of one Jimmy Howard.
Red Wings fans know this story, but it’s been told by the other team’s guy.
Remember New Jersey’s Marty Brodeur in the 1995 Cup Finals? J-F Giguere in the 2003 first round against Anaheim? Those are just two examples. There have been others—goalies whose feats have caused Hockeytown’s fans to wake up in a cold sweat.
This year, it’s Howard who’s “that guy.”
It’s Howard who is repelling shot after shot, scoring chance after scoring chance—turning a powerful opponent into a pile of frustrated rubble.
Howard made Anaheim’s Corey Perry look to the heavens more than once in the seven-game first round. Perry, a top goal scorer ever since he entered the league, went goal-less against Howard.
Now Howard’s doing it to Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, who has yet to score a goal in this conference semifinal series against the Red Wings.
Toews did get a hat trick of sorts in Game 4—he took three straight penalties in the second period, all within a 5:34 time frame. The Red Wings scored on one of those three power plays, and it turned out to be the only goal they needed, as Howard was again stellar.
The Blackhawks hadn’t been shut out all season. They also hadn’t lost three straight games all season. Both those streaks ended Thursday night. Howard can’t be judged an innocent in making that happen.
Howard is playing the best hockey of his career, and in the process he is exorcising demons—the ones that said he isn’t a money goalie, and that he can’t be trusted in the playoffs.
Win me a playoff series and then we’ll talk, the Howard critics like to say about the goalie they hate to love.
Now, that might seem like an unfair measuring stick, but this is Detroit, whose fans have always had a fascination with the quarterbacks and goalies who were on the sidelines and on the bench, rather than supporting the ones actually playing.
The Red Wings haven’t won this series against the Blackhawks yet. The fourth win won’t be easily attained. Frankly, for it to happen, Howard has to continue to be red hot.
And, for it to happen, the Red Wings have to continue to be the team that they loathed to play against in so many of those aborted playoff runs.
They have to continue to experience how the other half has lived for the past 22 years.