Detroit — The Red Wings left Joe Louis Arena to a resounding roar Thursday night, and the way they're skating, they plan to be back. We knew we'd see this eventually after all these years, the Wings pushed to the edge of postseason oblivion, and we wondered how they'd react.
Well, well, look at this. The Wings have some old bite left, and just as important, they have a fresh young group that's growing up fast.
Desperation is the mother of invigoration, and the Wings are thoroughly invigorated now. They rolled past the Predators, 5-2, before another sellout crowd, and are poised to complete what seemed like a daunting week-long task. They won three straight at home, and if they cap the regular season with a victory at Dallas Saturday night (or just grab a point), they're back in the playoffs.
For 21 years, that didn't qualify as news around here. This year, it does. The Wings only get bumped from the playoffs now if they lose in regulation to the Stars and Columbus beats Nashville Saturday night. The Blue Jackets are playing at home and certainly could push the issue with a victory, but the Wings control their fate for one final game.
They seem determined to maintain control, playing their best hockey in a while. They pushed the action all night against the Predators, from all angles. Suddenly, Johan Franzen is firing pucks with impunity again, scoring his seventh goal in the past seven games. This is about the Mule lumbering to life, but it's also about the crafty horses — Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Jimmy Howard.
And as long as we're discussing animals, it's about octopus again, as a giant one splattered on the ice during the national anthem. It's good to see self-respecting squid still aren't safe here in the spring.
The Wings aren't just flying, they're grinding, playing as if their reputations are at stake. For the experienced guys, it's even a little personal. In his first season as captain, Zetterberg certainly doesn't want the 21-year playoff streak to end on his watch. Franzen is Mr. May, the postseason sniper, so naturally he's feeling comfortable now.
"We're playing like we should have been playing all year," Franzen said. "We take a lot of pride in that streak. We're all buying into the system, not doing your own thing. And we're working our butts off."
Mule working hard
Franzen has provided a needed spark after a slow start. If it took the Wings a while to integrate all their young players with the veterans, it's escalating now. Detroit outscored Phoenix, Los Angeles and Nashville 12-3 in this three-game roll, but it really began before that, with a stellar effort in a shootout loss at Vancouver.
"We've gotten a lot better as a team, and that's what happens when you have young people," Mike Babcock said. "I thought we were playing real well before we started winning. Our team isn't the same as it's been, but that doesn't mean we can't grow into a new product."
That's a great way to put it, and a great way to handle it. Datsyuk, who scored his team-leading 15th goal, and Zetterberg are the catalysts, but all around them, kids are finding their way. Danny DeKeyser arrived three weeks ago straight from Western Michigan and has been a tremendous addition, joining fellow young defensemen Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl. Young forwards Damien Brunner, Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson and Cory Emmerton also have added energy.
Keeping it simple
Basically, the Wings have dumped some of the fancy stuff and charged straight ahead. You see it in a lot of areas, including center Valtteri Filppula, who's playing with more bite.
"I've been trying to be more physical, stronger on the puck," Filppula said. "If it looks like that, I'm glad."
It looks like the Wings could be churning toward a first-round playoff matchup with the Blackhawks, and if they get there, they might be one of those dangerous No. 8 seeds that used to nag them. Chicago won all four meetings this season but three ended in overtime or a shootout, so it's not as if the Wings would be completely overmatched.
This is good for the Wings, and it's actually not bad for the fans, who were especially energized this week. It's not just about the 21-year run, either, although that's a major factor, the longest current playoff streak in pro sports. For comparison, the next-longest current NHL streak is eight years, by San Jose.
A playoff appearance could provide untold benefits for the Wings' young players, who are gathering confidence with every game. Oh, the Wings still commit nasty defensive miscues and don't have enough pure scorers to scare many opponents. But this is a team trying to mold itself and reinvent itself, while pushing deeper into the spring.
If the Wings keep playing like this, they'll be back soon enough, maybe even sooner than you think.
In the hunt
A look at the teams in the Western Conference playoff hunt before Thursday:
7 Detroit (54 points)
Games left: 1 (Saturday at Dallas)
8 Minnesota (53 points)
Games left: 2 (Friday vs. Edmonton, Saturday at Colorado)
8 Columbus (53)
Games left: 1 (Saturday vs. Nashville)