The Red Wings celebrate after clinching a playoff spot for the 22nd year running. (Image | Getty Images)

There was a stage in this season’s NHL when the one-time unthinkable was about to happen. The Detroit Red Wings, having stumbled and stuttered through the season and even suffering a 3-0 season sweep at the hands of the frankly dire Calgary Flame, were on the brink of not making a 22nd straight Playoffs appearance.

‘The Streak’, as it is known to Wings fans. dates back to 1989 and is the longest post-season appearance streak in the history of American sports.

When it started, The Simpsons had just debuted on the television. Back To The Future III and Die Hard 2 had hit the cinemas. The closest any other franchise has thus far got are the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA (16 seasons). The closest any other hockey team has got is 9 seasons by the San Jose Sharks.

In the weeks building up to the final defeat to Calgary, Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock had tried to calm talk about the streak down, and lower expectations; perhaps preparing for the worst. When the lockout ended in January, there was some debate as to what sort of team would prosper in the short season. Would it be the wise old heads who would use their experience and wisdom to take the upper hand? Or would the younger, more energetic sides seize the initiative?

As it turned out, the Chicago Blackhawks blitzed the Western Conference starting by going 24 games without a regulation loss and the Pittsburgh Penguins strolled the East, their season including a 15 game win streak. These two teams would have been in the running to win their respective Conferences anyway, but their dominance coming out of the proverbial traps really did put their rivals on the back foot.

As for the Red Wings, things could not have started much worse. Away to the much fancied St Louis Blues they started the campaign with a 6-0 drubbing, chiefly at the hands of Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak, Chris Stewart and rookie Vladimir Tarasenko. And thus began a season of inconsistency with Detroit never really managing to get going. Mid-February saw a 5 match winless streak book-ended by wins against the LA Kings and Nashville Predators.

It was becoming very apparent that without the retired Tomas Holström and former captain and legend Niklas Lidström, and with injuries to key defensive players such as Mikael Samuelson and Carlo Colaiacovo which saw the management turn to inexperienced youngsters were hampering the Wings. That is not to say that Brian Lashoff, Petr Mrazek and Danny De Keyser who was recently signed from Western Michigan University, did not play their part.

Wings fans can’t really complain, though. The Joe Louis Arena (and the Old Red Barn before it) has seen some wonderful hockey players come and go. Detroit has always been blessed with quality players; this year they have had to make do with slightly less.

Rookies like Dan De Keyser have stepped up to the plate this season. (Image | Getty Images)

Fast forward to April 17th and Calgary drop Detroit back to 9th place with a 3-2 win courtesy of two uncharacteristic goal-tending blunders from Jimmy Howard and 36 saves from his counter-part Mika Kiprusoff in the opposition net. The next game saw trip to Vancouver and a 2-1 over-time loss to the Canucks.

Cory Schneider was immense in the Vancouver net as they clinched a playoff berth with three games to spare. Not losing in regulation time was a plus for Detroit, but it still meant that they needed to win all four of their remaining games to extend the streak. These four games would be at home to Phoenix, LA, Nashville finishing on the road to Dallas. Not the hardest run-in given that of these sides, only LA are a playoff team.

Phoenix at home was not supposed to cause much trouble for the Wings, but with a win and a loss in their previous encounters it could have gone either way. What followed was a 4-0 win thanks in no small part to Jimmy Howard celebrating signing a new contract by making 34 saves. The Wings also capitalized on power-play, which for large parts of the season saw teams effectively stop them on. Johan Franzen showed a glimpse of what was to come in the later games by scoring two goals. Justin Abdelkader really put in a shift, taking up Holström’s position in front of the net, screening the goal-tender and taking a lot of body shots in the process.

Next up Detroit welcomed the reigning Stanley Cup champions to the Joe Louis, as it was LA’s turn to try and put an end to the streak. This was the toughest game of the run-in and was arguably the finest performance from Detroit. All the big name players came to the party. Datsyuk started to fizz, Franzen (nicknamed Mule) started to kick, Jimmy Howard and Patrick Eaves were immense, as was Gustav Nyquist with Joakim Andersson and Damien Brunner.

The 3-1 victory saw Detroit move into 8th place, one point ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The scoreline in the next game against the Nashville Predators was even more emphatic. The previous season’s playoffs saw the Predators dispatch Detroit with consummate ease in the first round and the bitter taste hasn’t really left the mouths of Red Wings fans, so a 5-2 win in such an important game was hugely satisfying as the Wings were in top form once again.

Jordin Tootoo’s rampaging skates into the box caused havoc time and time again was an unsung hero, as was Valtteri Flippula who was 13-3 on the face-off.  Flippula has always been somewhat of an enigma at Detroit; nobody doubts his immense talent if only we could see it more often.

This match also highlighted a fact that was becoming ever more clear to all who watched the last four Detroit games. The Wings were getting contributions from the whole team and from all the lines, thus boding well for the final game in which a win was needed thanks to Dallas not being able to get anything from their penultimate match against Columbus. And win it they did. 3-0 was the scoreline in the end, with Kyle Quincey and Brendan Smith in superb form and the Nyquist – Andersson – Brunner line relentless in their fore-checking. Anybody wishes to get a glimpse of Henrik Zetterburg’s ability would do worse than to watch the Dallas game; he was fantastic.

Veterans Johan Franzen and Pavel Datsyuk came to the fore in Detroit’s late playoff push, (Image | Getty Images)

When it comes to playoffs, the Red Wings have been ever-present. But during this streak they have won the Stanley Cup 4 times – the last being in the 2007/2008 season. It has been a while since they went deep into the playoffs; last season’s dismantling at the hands of the Predators was a chastening experience, one that if suffered again when they take on rivals Anaheim in the first round.

The Ducks have been quietly ticking all the right boxes this season and have finished second in the West behind Chicago. After missing out on last season’s playoffs, they too will want a good showing in 2013. Detroit have a 2-1 record against them in the regular season and will look to that and their performances in the final four games to dispatch them.

Nobody expects another Stanley Cup this year, not with this team with the amount of rookies it has; certainly not with the quality of opposition out there. Vancouver, St Louis, Boston and New York are much better bets for the cup. Nevertheless, the fighting spirit shown by this side in transition when the chips were down will be of tremendous encouragement to the fans and the management.

It was said that perhaps the Red Wings needed to lose the streak to move on. The fans beg to differ though; the streak is part of the franchise very being now. The Red Wings aren’t a particularly well liked outfit by other NHL fans. Rivalries forged in playoff duels in bygone years still matter to this day and each passing year that the team makes it into the playoffs is like ‘flipping the bird’ at our rivals and detractors.

From a personal viewpoint, reaching the playoffs was all I realistically expected the Red Wings to achieve this season, and now it is just a matter of how far they go. Sending Anaheim away would be a brilliant extension of what has been a tremendous week or so on the ice. The rookies available have genuine talent which could be part of the reason why Ken Holland was so reluctant to make a trade when Detroit were so desperate for a defenceman.

Either way this transition will be long and at times it won’t be pretty, but it must be stuck with. Pavel Datsyuk’s days in the NHL are drawing to a close and it’ll be a golden day when hockey sees a player like him again. He will take a lot of replacing, but the Red Wings have always been blessed with quality players and will continue to do so. I don’t think the Lord Stanley’s Cup is Michigan-bound this year, but perhaps number 12 isn’t that far off the horizon. For now though, I’m just glad to have playoff hockey.

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