Detroit — The more they play, the better they get. The better they get, the closer they get. And the closer the Red Wings get to the playoffs, the more you see what’s possible.
The Wings are playing now as if on smelling salts, wide-eyed and frantic. They beat the woeful Sabres 3-2 Friday night to nudge another step toward a 23rd consecutive playoff berth, and I dare say this would qualify as the most impressive yet.
It never gets old for the Wings, even when players get old. But with a fresh pack of youngsters, the Wings are doing it an entirely new way. They’re trying to take a transition year and turn it into a transformative year. And if they get in — they’re the seventh seed right now, four points ahead of the No. 9 Maple Leafs with five games left — they’ll be the team they long hated to face, the Most Dangerous Low Seed Imaginable.
Pavel Datsyuk returned from a knee injury and eased in with 17 uneventful minutes as the Wings won their fourth straight. Not much more was needed against the worst team in the NHL, although the Wings took an ill-advised snooze after stomping to a 3-0 lead.
It got tense at the end, although these days, it’s always tense at the end. The margin in six of the Wings’ last seven victories has been a solitary goal, and Mike Babcock had a logical theory for why they appeared to let up in this one.
“I thought we started really good and suddenly we had some skill, and suddenly we were dangling around with the puck, and now we had cute-itis going,” he said. “We didn’t want to shoot it in the net, we wanted to pass it one more time. That was us feeling like we were a pretty good team suddenly. Maybe we weren’t scared for the first time in two months.”
Although I’m not personally familiar with cute-itis (obviously), that’s exactly what it looked like. Better to be scared then cute, and the Wings have the potential to be scary, even after all they’ve endured.
Henrik Zetterberg is still lurking, perhaps returning in the first round. Daniel Alfredsson was back and scored a goal Friday night. Johan Franzen always is a spring-time threat. And of course, Gustav Nyquist is rising as fast as any young player in recent Detroit sports, the team’s MVP with 28 goals.
The defense can get numbingly ragged at times, and it doesn’t help that Jonathan Ericsson is out for a while. Do the Wings make more mistakes than the red machines of the past? Absolutely. Do they make more mistakes with energy than lethargy? Yep.
“We tried to protect the lead too much,” Alfredsson said. “The pressure, the time of the year, the magnitude of the game, a game we can’t lose. All that makes for us being cautious. Until they put that X next to you in the standings, you’ve gotta keep going.”
There’s been a natural switch with the recent hot streak, as the Wings have gone from a nice underdog tale to a team feeling better and better about itself. Quietly in net, Jimmy Howard is putting together a fine season, and not so quietly, Babcock is doing one of the great coaching jobs of his career. He has adjusted to an injury-mangled roster with the right mix of assertiveness and patience.
When some observers wondered why GM Ken Holland bothered to trade for David Legwand to gear up for a run, well, here’s your answer. The Wings always go for it, and always should. The longest postseason streak in professional sports is worth preserving, not for historic reasons or organizational ego, but because the Wings have the skill and speed to be difficult for someone, especially someone like the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Wings were riding fumes last spring and still beat the Ducks in the first round and took the Blackhawks to overtime of Game 7. They were battered then, and didn’t have a lot of reinforcements. Nyquist tallied three goals in 22 games last season and added two in the playoffs.
Young players emerge
Everyone acknowledges Nyquist, 24, deserved to be on the roster at the start of this season, but he did have a wobbly stretch — one goal in 18 games — that makes his sudden dominance even more startling. It has been a revelatory season for several young players, including Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and any other Tomases you can name.
When the Wings rallied to beat the mighty Bruins 3-2 the other night, the old Joe was cranked up. It was loud again Friday night, although it dissipated after the early fury. The Wings legitimately are in decent playoff shape for the first time in a while, heading to Montreal tonight. But four of their final five games are on the road, and if they’ve learned anything this season, it’s that givens aren’t givens anymore.
“We’ve been feeling (the pressure) forever, and I think that’s a great thing,” Babcock said. “To me, this ain’t about the past. This is about this group in this room, that’s where the pressure comes from. We feel this group has an opportunity, so let’s make good on it.”
The opportunity is sitting right there, as close as it’s been. The goal of getting into the playoffs has never changed, but it’s safe to say, the possibilities have grown.