After a touch-and-go season, it now seems likely that the Detroit Red Wings’ 22-season playoff streak will survive one more campaign. Entering action on Monday, the team held one of the two wild-card slots in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, its 88 points putting it one up on Columbus in the other spot and four points ahead of New Jersey and Toronto, the two clubs currently sitting just outside the postseason.
That the Red Wings are favoured, but still not out of danger, with four games left on their schedule is a testament to the kind of season it’s been. No longer is Detroit, long an NHL powerhouse, seen as one of the league’s elite teams; instead, it's now a fringe playoff team in the weaker East.
While it’s true that Detroit has slipped relative to what it once was, it still has much further to go before opposition teams should take it lightly. One reason for this is the simple fact that a healthy Detroit Red Wings team will look significantly different from the group that has played in Joe Louis Arena for much of this season.
Twitter’s @LW3H, who is best known for his work tracking NHL injury data on the blog Springing Malik, updated his "cap hit of injured players" numbers on Sunday and revealed that no club has been hit as hard by injuries to significant players as the Red Wings:
Even excluding injuries to defencemen and goaltenders, the Red Wings have had more money on injured reserve than every team in the NHL other than Pittsburgh. Add in the forwards, and no team in the league has been beset by critical injuries the way Detroit has.
Detroit’s leading scorer right now is Henrik Zetterberg, with 48 points. He’s missed 33 of the team’s 78 games with back problems. One point back of Zetterberg is Daniel Alfredsson, who has missed 13 games. Pavel Datsyuk, one of the top half-dozen players in the NHL, has missed 37 games. Johan Franzen, a vital power forward, has missed 27.
And all of that is before getting to people like big free-agent signing Stephen Weiss (52 games missed and counting) and useful depth forward Darren Helm (missed 40 games).
The good news for Detroit, and the problem for the Red Wings’ opponents, is that the team is starting to welcome players back.
Datsyuk is now two games into his return to the lineup. He scored a goal against Montreal on Saturday, his first marker of 2014. The lineup that night featured all of Franzen, Alfredsson and Helm, all back in the lineup after recently being stuck in the press box.
Assuming the Red Wings can hold on to their playoff spot, they may have more good news at some point during the first round. Late last week, the club revealed to The Detroit News’ Ted Kulfan that Zetterberg could resume skating as early as this week. Zetterberg, out after undergoing back surgery, could be back playing as soon as some point in the first round.
It’s an interesting situation for Detroit because injuries have created opportunities for young players like Gustav Nyquist (47 points in 53 games), Tomas Tatar (36 points in 69 games) and Riley Sheahan (21 points in 38 games). Those young forwards all played key roles in keeping the Red Wings afloat while Datsyuk and Co. were on the shelf, and now they’re being reinforced by the veterans they managed to survive without for much of the season.
It won’t be easy for the Red Wings to go on a charge as a low seed, but the team is helped by its new home and by the NHL’s new wild-card playoff format.
The majority of the NHL’s powerhouses are out West, and Detroit is set to dodge the East’s most intimidating team (Boston) through the first two rounds because as long as it maintains its current lead on Columbus, the team will be slotted in the No. 4 spot in the Metropolitan Division. The Penguins, Rangers and Flyers all have good points, but none of them are insurmountable obstacles for a good team.
And thanks to timely health and some standout performances by young players, that may be exactly what the Red Wings are.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics are courtesy of NHL.com and are current through the start of action on April 7.