Wings lose game, Howard; is this the year their playoff streak ends?

No team has been more consistently solid than the Red Wings. But there are signs suggesting their 22-year-run of making the playoffs could be nearing an end.

If there’s any NHL franchise that deserves doubt’s benefit during a bad stretch of games, it’s the Detroit Red Wings. You don’t make the playoffs for 22 consecutive seasons without accumulating some credit to spend at a troubling time like this. But after Monday’s 4-1 loss to St. Louis – and a knee injury to goalie Jimmy Howard – you also can’t blame their fan base for starting to worry in a way they haven’t for many years.

Now, the Wings are coming off a week in which they beat the powerhouse L.A. Kings twice – and they still have as many standings points as the Columbus Blue Jackets, who currently occupy the final wild card playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. They’re also one of the league’s most bashed-up squads and were without Pavel Datsyuk, Daniel Alfredsson, Darren Helm, Johan Franzen and Jonathan Ericsson against the visiting Blues. And you can’t ever count out a team with Henrik Zetterberg or Datsyuk on it, nor one coached by Mike Babcock.

But you’d have to have the memory of a goldfish to not grasp how inconsistent the Wings have played this season. Incredibly, they’ve only won two straight games once since Dec. 1 and have an 8-11-3 record since the start of December. This is why they’re now locked in a brutal dogfight with six other teams just to challenge the surging Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets for one of those two wild card slots. So a loss in which they were outshot terribly in the first two periods (and 39-23 on the night) had to be disconcerting enough. But losing Howard midway through the second period has to be more worrisome for Detroit brass.

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With backup Jonas Gustavsson also dealing with a tender groin that’s kept him sidelined since Dec. 28, the Wings have to be praying Howard’s injury isn’t serious. If it is, GM Ken Holland is almost assuredly going to have to make a trade to keep them in the post-season hunt.

But even then, it seems as if the deck is stacked against Detroit this year. They’ll be sending 10 players to the Sochi Olympics, which could lead to more injuries and/or late-season fatigue. And they’re more or less capped out in terms of payroll flexibility, so any trade to address a deficiency will lead to a strain on another part of the lineup.

Again, don’t take this to be an elegy for the Wings. They’ve still got enough time, knowhow and willpower to extend their streak to 23 seasons without a playoff miss. But it’s a strange sight indeed to see the cracks of doubt now visible in what for nearly a quarter-century has been the NHL’s most solid foundation.