DETROIT – For two decades, the Detroit Red Wings went into the last month of the regular season jockeying for one of the top spots in the playoffs.
The Red Wings have been in 18 straight postseasons – the longest streak in sports – and 17 in a row as a team seeded high enough to have home-ice advantage for at least a round. Now, they’re simply vying to get in.
Detroit would have been the eighth-seeded team in the Western Conference if the NHL season ended Wednesday night. But its standing is tenuous, with five teams – Dallas, Calgary, Anaheim, St. Louis and Minnesota – all within four points of Detroit.
The Red Wings came out of the Olympic break with a win at Colorado, then took a step back with a 6-3 loss Wednesday night at home against Vancouver.
“It was a discouraging effort for our team,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “This didn’t look very good and doesn’t give you much sign of hope.”
Captain Nicklas Lidstrom was much more optimistic about the team’s chances of being among the top eight in the West on April 11, when the regular season ends.
“I’m real confident in our chances,” Lidstrom said. “As long as you get in, you’ve got a chance to do anything in the NHL playoffs. We’ve seen that upsets do happen because from top to bottom, teams are so close.”
Lidstrom pointed to getting previously banged-up players – Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, Andreas Lilja, Niklas Kronwall and Valtteri Filppula – back in the lineup as a sign of hope.
Detroit was expected to endure a rebuilding season after losing Marian Hossa and other players who combined to score 88 goals last season. The storied franchise, however, then lost a handful of other players to injuries, making a tough task of staying competitive even more daunting.
Babcock said the “best team we dressed all year” played on Monday night at Colorado – the 62nd game of the season.
“We have the makings of a real good team,” Babcock said. “Now, we have to play like a real good team each and every night to get ourselves into the tournament.”
Getting back to full strength has created competition to just get in the lineup for some players and for others, ice time in 5-on-5 and power-play situations has to be earned on a daily basis.
“Hunger is wonderful thing,” he said.
Filppula, Dan Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi will be rotated into two spots with one of them sitting on the bench on Henrik Zetterberg’s power-play unit.
“If your group does real good, you have a chance to go back in,” Babcock said.
Detroit’s injury woes gave players such as Darren Helm and Drew Miller chances to play that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Babcock acknowledged the importance in role players gaining experience that might help the Red Wings make their push for a spot in the playoffs, but he wanted to make one point clear.
“It’s about our high-end guys,” Babcock said. “It’s time for them to step up.”
Pavel Datsyuk and Zetterberg are both in danger of having their worst seasons offensively since the 2003-04 season in part because their surrounding cast is not as talented as it has been in years. Lidstrom, who has been named the NHL’s top defenceman six times, seems to have slipped from great to good as he nears his 40th birthday.
Goaltender Jimmy Howard has often been solid, keeping Chris Osgood on the bench, but has been prone to bad performances like the one that got him pulled against the Canucks.
“Our leadership is second to none and that’s why we didn’t panic when things didn’t look so good and that’s why we’re in a position to make a push now,” Howard said. “The rest during the Olympics couldn’t have come at a better time for some guys and for other guys, the Olympics gave them some more playing time to come back from their injuries.”
After beating the Red Wings, Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo sounded quite certain that he expects them to be in their usual spot – in the playoffs – next month.
“They’ll be fine,” Luongo said. “I have no doubt they’ll be in the playoffs. They’re getting healthy, they’re a well-coached team and they’ve been getting good goaltending.”