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Detroit — They exit the All-Star break fourth in the NHL in points, and while some express surprise, many Red Wings players say they expect that level of performance.

They just believe they are that good.

As long as the key factors — better health, good goaltending and the continued development of younger players — remain constant through April, playing in a conference final for the first time in six seasons is not an entirely unreasonable expectation.

What would seal the deal is a more consistent performance, the Red Wings say.

At times, their goals have come by the bushel. But at those times, they have given up more.

When they have clamped down defensively, often the goals elude them.

Moderating those ebbs and flows and establishing evenness of play as a hallmark would help prepare them for a deeper playoff run.

"Compared to last year, we're more healthy and I think a little bit deeper," Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said. "Special teams are a little bit better.

"We're doing a lot of good things, but we have to keep winning games," he said, emphasizing constancy, despite the five-game winning streak they ride into the first post-break game today, against the Panthers.

"There's a lot of way, left. We know that Montreal and Tampa will win games. We know that Boston will win games, so we need to keep playing well."

Feeling confident

Consistency is at a premium, especially when the powers that be have spent nearly more than a decade engineering parity among the teams, there is so little room for offense on the ice and portions of the Red Wings roster remain in development.

As he reviewed the first three months and anticipated the next three, Zetterberg considered the variations.

"We went through a stretch this year when we didn't score many goals, at all," he said. "I think since the road trip on the West Coast (Jan. 3-7), we started to play solid. We did the right things, played good defense and special teams was a little bit better, the power play started to get some goals and we just kind of got going, here."

But as the break came, frustratingly inconsistent performances against the Sabres and Wild, and a sudden deterioration of their stellar penalty kill caused concern.

Two of the Red Wings whose improvement this season is helping drive the success are unsurprised by it, and say they feel confident.

"A few ups-and-downs, but as far as the season's gone so far, I think we've done a pretty good job," said forward Darren Helm, whose 47 games (8 goals, 12 assists) are already the most he has played in any of the last three seasons.

"We've had a team that's been healthy for the most part, and we've done great things with the team not being healthy.

"I think we've got a deep team. We're a pretty hard-working team that skates and plays pretty hard."

"It's hard work, but things are paying off."

If he can play at this pace, garnering 15 or 16 goals and remaining healthy for the playoffs, Helm will be a significant contributor.

Players are motivated

Recalling the successes of the past two seasons as the roster began to transition, with the upset of the Ducks in the playoffs and going up 3-1 on the Blackhawks before losing in seven, and the persistence against a plague of injuries last season, many of the Red Wings believe that is their level of play.

"We kind of knew what we had in this locker room," said forward Justin Abdelkader, whose 26 points are two fewer than his career best, and whose 11 goals are one more than he tallied in each of the past two seasons.

"Obviously, everyone outside of this locker room and the organization was kind of doubting us, and questioned whether we could make the playoffs. And, we still have a long way to go, but we know what we have in the locker room and we know what we are capable of, night in and night out."

Considerable motivation proceeds from the way last season ended, with solid performance by a playoff-inexperienced roster against the Bruins that remains a sore point.

"I think we all kind of had a chip on our shoulder from last season, you know, the way it finished off for us," Abdelkader said of the 4-1 elimination by the Bruins in the first round after the Red Wings won the first game.

"We were really disappointed.

"Even the last few years, we felt like we had a team that could compete for the Stanley Cup Finals, or for the Stanley Cup, and we kind of fell short."

The sense of the dressing room seems that whether they are surprisingly good or not is for others to consider, and they want in February and March to give themselves the best opportunity for a deeper run in the playoffs

"The regular season is obviously important, and getting points while we can, because you don't know what's going to come your way as far as injuries and adversity and what not," Abdelkader said.

"So, it's been a nice stretch for us. We've put ourselves back in the mix with the top teams in the NHL."

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

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