The Detroit Red Wings upset the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the 2013 NHL playoffs and then defied the odds by taking a 3-1 series lead over the Presidents' Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks in Round 2.
But after having two chances to close out the series and failing each time, the Red Wings fell out of the postseason in overtime of Game 7 when Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook joined the rush and scored the series-winning goal 3:35 into the extra period.
Despite the heartbreaking finish to a hard-fought playoff series between two fierce rivals, Detroit enjoyed a lot success and exceeded expectations in what was labelled a "bridge year" for the Original Six franchise.
Before this lockout-shortened season, some people actually picked the Red Wings to miss the playoffs for the first time in 23 years. That was largely due to the offseason departures of captain and future Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, veteran blueliner Brad Stuart and center Jiri Hudler.
Head coach Mike Babcock had to insert several rookies into his lineup and put inexperienced NHLers in important roles, but the team responded well and took huge strides in its development.
Let's look at a few reasons the future is bright for Hockeytown.
Jimmy Howard Joins NHL's Elite
One of the top takeaways from the Red Wings' playoff run is that Jimmy Howard is capable of giving the team a consistently strong performance in net as an elite NHL goaltender.
Howard, who re-signed for six years and $31.75 million in April, ascended to another level this year. He finished the regular season with a 21-13-7 record, a .923 save percentage and a 2.13 GAA.
After struggling in last year's five-game first-round series defeat to the Nashville Predators, the 29-year-old netminder greatly improved his playoff performance in 2013 (see chart below).
When Detroit struggled early in this year and made a lot of mistakes defensively, Howard kept the team competitive and helped put the Red Wings in a position to chase a playoff spot late in the season. He finished April with a 7-3-3 record, including four straight wins to end the regular season.
Howard's success carried into the playoffs, where he won two road games in the first round over the Anaheim Ducks, including an impressive performance in Game 7 at the Honda Center. His 2.44 GAA set a new playoff career high.
The Red Wings should be encouraged that their back end will be anchored by one of the league's top 10 goaltenders for at least the next six years. Howard is the real deal and will only improve as he enters his prime.
Young Forwards Impress
The Red Wings went into the season asking several young forwards to play a top-nine role, which was an unfamiliar situation for this team.
If it were known before the Chicago series that Detroit would get just three goals from star forwards Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Pavel Datsyuk, many fans would not have given the Red Wings much of a chance to reach the conference finals.
But they nonetheless took a 3-1 series lead because the rookies and young forwards on their second, third and fourth lines stepped up when the veterans struggled offensively.
Rookie forward Damien Brunner finished third on the team in goals scored (12) during the regular season and finished fourth in scoring during the playoffs with nine points, including an overtime-winning goal in Game 4 of the Ducks series.
The Swiss center is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, but it would be shocking if he left Detroit this summer. With a full season in a top-six role, Brunner should be one of the league's breakout players next year.
Another rookie forward who impressed in the playoffs was Gustav Nyquist, a highly skilled winger with great speed and a high hockey IQ. Nyquist scored five points in the postseason, and his beautiful saucer pass to Henrik Zetterberg in Game 7 against the Blackhawks (watch here) helped the Red Wings force overtime.
The 23-year-old played most of the third period and overtime on the Wings' top line in Game 7, which showed how much confidence and faith Babcock has in his young winger.
The other rookie forward who made a strong impact at both ends of the ice for Detroit in the postseason was Joakim Andersson.
He tallied five points (one goal, four assists) in 14 playoff games, including a goal and two assists in the second round. Andersson battled for loose pucks in the dirty areas, played a physical game and blocked shots throughout the playoffs, which helped him become a valuable depth player for the Red Wings.
Detroit's talented young forwards earned some valuable experience in this year's playoffs, and for them to shine in their postseason debuts is very encouraging for this franchise. With top prospects Tomas Tatar, Teemu Pulkkinen and Martin Frk yet to make an impact at the NHL level, the Red Wings' forward depth over the next few years should be stronger than that of most teams in the Eastern Conference.
Blue Line Has Depth and Developing Talent
The offseason departures of Lidstrom and Stuart made the Red Wings' blue line less talented and less experienced. But looking back on the team's 2013 season, there was actually a little more depth on defense than was expected coming out of the lockout.
Former first-round pick Brendan Smith steadily improved as the season progressed. Meanwhile, Jakub Kindl exceeded expectations and Kyle Quincey was more comfortable in his first full year in Detroit after joining the team at the 2012 trade deadline.
Late-season signing Dan DeKeyser from Western Michigan played very well defensively at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs until a hand injury ended his postseason run. As a physical blueliner with size and skill, DeKeyser has the talent and hockey IQ needed to become an elite defenseman.
Veteran blueliner Niklas Kronwall, who played well enough to earn Norris Trophy consideration, stepped into the role of No. 1 defenseman and excelled as a shutdown player. His leadership and reliability on the blue line will continue to be a major part of the Red Wings' success defensively.
Despite the amount of youth on the blue line, the Red Wings still finished fifth in GAA and 12th in penalty killing during the regular season. As Detroit's young defensemen earn more experience and further develop their skills, this team will once again be one of the toughest to play against.
A Move to the Eastern Conference and a Bright Future
When the NHL realigns for the 2013-14 season, Detroit will switch to the Eastern Conference and join a division that includes the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. Moving to the East will result in the Red Wings having to travel fewer miles per year to play divisional road games.
For the present, the Red Wings learned a lot about their team this year, and there are many reasons for them to be excited about the 2013-14 season. Detroit's young players are ready to play in big games, Howard is capable of being an elite goaltender and the team as a whole has a lot of character and resiliency.
General manager Ken Holland and his scouting staff have done a wonderful job of drafting young players over the last few years. With $11,894,621 of salary cap space this summer (according to Capgeek), the team will have the financial flexibility to add some pieces to an already deep roster by making moves in the free-agent and trade markets.
The Red Wings are the model franchise of the NHL. With an ownership that's fully committed to winning, front office stability, the best head coach in the league and a roster that has a good mixture of young players and established stars, Detroit will be competitive for the foreseeable future.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Nick was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs, and he is also a credentialed writer at the 2013 NHL playoffs in Boston.
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