March 25, 2014 at 1:00 am

Gregg Krupa

As injuries pile up, Red Wings plow ahead with playoffs in their sights

Forward Gustav Nyquist, who started the season in Grand Rapids, leads the Red Wings with 23 goals. He has 40 points, fourth on the team. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)

Detroit — A week ago, many were willing to give them up for dead. Others were more delicate.

It was simply difficult, they said, to see how the Red Wings could make the Stanley Cup Playoffs a 23rd consecutive season with the plague of injuries that has descended upon them, and during a year in which the lineup was in flux even before the casualties.

But, by last Friday, the word spreading already was different. Around the NHL, it was said the Red Wings just might surprise folks.

By last Sunday, they were back in the playoffs.

The Red Wings played four games in six days and garnered seven of a possible eight points.

It was an improbable week. If they make the playoffs, it will be among their most improbable seasons.

Despite a franchise record for injuries that have eliminated seven of the 12 forwards who started the season and spurred what is likely to be the first NHL game Tuesday night for an eighth rookie, the Red Wings still might make it 23 in a row.

That observation, shocking to some and surprising to most, was noted in dressing rooms and front offices around the NHL. On national broadcasts last weekend, much was said to report what had become clear.

The Red Wings suddenly were the most compelling story in the league.

Gustav Nyquist, who has 23 goals in 46 games — a 40-goal scoring pace — expressed it as a matter of pure resolve.

“We’re just going to try to make these playoffs,” said Nyquist, who started the season in Grand Rapids.

There are several reasons for the dramatic resurgence. If they remain in place the last 11 games, the Red Wings might make the playoffs, as improbable as it clearly remains with Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and almost half of the regular roster among the wounded.

Howard improves

Jimmy Howard is winning more games and instilling considerable confidence. Especially given the role of a goaltender and Howard’s considerable personal leadership skills, he remains the key ingredient.

His personal statistics are likely beyond repair this season, especially given how much time the comparatively inexperienced defense and replacement forwards force the Red Wings to spend in their own zone while the fifth-year goaltender has worked to improve his game.

But one statistic for a goaltender is of more a consequence of team play, and it also is the most important one: wins. Recently, Howard and the Red Wings are winning.

Since the Olympics, and perhaps just before them, Howard has looked squarer to the puck and more in command of rebounds and his overall game. That is a considerable boost of confidence for any NHL team in a stretch drive, let alone an inexperienced one.

“It’s our stick-to-it-iveness lately,” Howard said. “I think confidence is growing in this room. I think guys are realizing we can get this done, no matter who is out of the lineup.”

Babcock thrives

Mike Babcock’s ninth year as coach of the Red Wings may be his best.

Babcock seems no less intense in any situation, let alone this one. If anything, he seems considerably more animated behind the bench, identifying reality and rallying inexperienced forces to the cause.

The considerable dexterity he brings to his craft allows him to coach an all-star team of the greatest players in Canada to gold medals in the Olympics, a mixture of has-beens and wanna-bes for the Ducks to the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals and a bunch of college kids for the Lethbridge Pronghorns, who never previously had a winning season, to the Canadian collegiate championship in 1994.

He has involved everyone. All of the replacements have a role, which Babcock delineates, and which contributes to victory.

Some are excelling, all are contributing.

These Red Wings clearly challenge Babcock’s deftness. But, like last year when they struggled to make the playoffs, he seems to revel in the work.

What his players say he provides is preparation and the plan. He also seems to have mastered the psychology.

After a recent bad stretch, when the playoff streak seemed particularly imperiled, Babcock was asked what message he delivered to the team.

“Well, I didn’t go in there and holler at them,” he said. “There’s a bunch of kids over in that room.”

Blue line, and beyond

In his decade with the Red Wings, Niklas Kronwall’s leadership never has been more needed or provided. With a raft of replacements, many assuming out-sized roles in a stretch drive, it was going to be important.

When Zetterberg’s regular season ended, it became critical.

More than anchoring a young, injury-plagued defense, Kronwall is now the pre-eminent team leader.

When he slid, head and shoulder first and neck second, into the end boards last weekend in Minnesota and left the ice groggy the whole season was in the balance. But, even then, one had the sense that somehow, someway, the rugged Kronwall would return.

The camera shot of the snow caked in his beard and his far-away eyes as teammates helped him to the locker room, may well emerge as the memory of the season.

“I think Kronner helps everyone’s game,” said Brendan Smith, his latest defensive partner. “He creates more time for everyone on the ice.”

When Nicklas Lidstrom left, Kronwall lifted his offensive game, a bit. He may now help lift the fledgling Red Wings to the playoffs.

Those kids

The “Kid Line” has been a revelation.

To Nyquist’s 23 goals, add Tomas Tatar’s 16. To 39 goals from the 24- and 23-year olds, add 18 points and exhibitions of skill and creativity from the 22-year old Riley Sheahan, and you have the most-potent offensive line for the Red Wings that is currently healthy.

Defenders around the NHL may adjust to Nyquist, and there is some chance he will not be quite so potent in the last three weeks of the season.

But with sprint-to-the-net, cross-ice saucer passes from the six-feet-two, 212-pound Sheahan and Tatar in perpetual, speedy motion with a sniper’s temperament, the Kid Line looks like a tough combination to control, now and in seasons to come.

Turn on the power

The power play has perked up.

It is essential for an offensively-challenged team with lots of replacements to get some goals with a man advantage.

In the two weeks before they played the Penguins last Friday, the Red Wings were 3-for-24 on the power play.

They are 4-for-10, since.

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com
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