Niyo: Streak is special, but Wings seek next level

John Niyo
The Detroit News
They were laughing Wednesday, but today Steve Yzerman, left, finds himself in a playoff war with Mike Babcock and Ken Holland.

Tampa, Fla. — The Streak is older than Viagra. It predates the debut of the World Wide Web and DVDs and the fall of the Soviet Union.

Petr Mrazek, the rookie who'll start in goal tonight in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, wasn't born the last time the Red Wings missed the postseason. Nor were a half-dozen of his teammates. And the same can be said for Detroit's first-round opponent, the Tampa Bay Lightning, an expansion franchise that didn't exist before 1992.

And yet The Streak is not what drives them. It's not what pushes them every summer, and pulls them through the grind of an 82-game schedule. It's not what goads them into sacrificing their bodies, hurling themselves in front of a whistling slapshot or willingly taking a cross-check to the ribs, no matter the consequences.

The Red Wings' remarkable 24-year playoff run — the longest active streak in major U.S. professional sports — is a badge of honor, sure, and a source of immense pride. But it's the Cup they're after, hockey's Holy Grail. And this team — once a dynasty, now a dark horse, at best — understands better than most, and probably better than ever, what this time of year really means.

"Every year you get in, you feel like you have a chance," said Niklas Kronwall, an 11-year NHL veteran bracing for his 100th career playoff game tonight when the puck drops at Tampa's Amalie Arena. "Some of us have gone all the way. But it's been a long time since we were even close.

"So you've got to make sure you embrace it, and make the most of it."

Playoff message

That's the message being passed around the Red Wings' dressing room this week, in words and deeds, with playful banter and some serious practice intensity, led by the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

"This is the fun part of the season — it's a special time," said Zetterberg, the Red Wings' captain, who missed the first playoff opener of his 13-year NHL career a year ago while rehabbing from back surgery.

He made it back for the end of his team's first-round loss to Boston last April — sitting and watching "was really tough," he says — and at 34, with nearly 1,000 games on his NHL odometer, Zetterberg is struggling to fend off Father Time. Still, spring is here, and the Stanley Cup is calling, so it should be no surprise to hear him talk of feeling rejuvenated, and insisting the same of his team.

"We just need to believe in ourselves," Zetterberg said, "and believe that we can play the way we want to."

The fans in Detroit have grown to believe that playoff hockey in some sort of birthright, what with The Streak spanning a full generation. And those weren't just cameo appearances, either.

Just ask Darren Helm, who made his playoff debut as a rookie in 2008, the year the Red Wings marched to a Cup title with startling ease. The next season, after his first full regular season in the NHL, the Wings made it all the way back to the Cup finals before losing to Pittsburgh in Game 7.

"Things just kind of rolled for us then, and I might've taken that a little bit for granted," said Helm, who, like the rest of his teammates, hasn't made it past the second round of the playoffs since. "Especially now that I see how hard it is to win. We've had a stretch where we haven't done too great in the playoffs here. And we've got to find a way to turn that around."

They tried, and failed, in a similar spot a year ago, as an injury-riddled lineup rallied to grab the final wild card spot in the East and even took a 1-0 lead on the heavily-favored Bruins. As Babcock says even now, "I thought we had a real opportunity, I really did."

But anemic special-teams play, a flu-ridden goaltender and the steep learning curve facing a handful of playoff rookies quickly put an end to the Red Wings' upset hopes.

"And the bottom line is those are all excuses," said Babcock, whose future in Detroit — he's a pending free agent himself — also may be hanging in the balance this spring.

"Everybody talks about how long (the postseason) goes. But it doesn't go long. It only goes long for two teams. The rest of you are done in a hurry," Babcock said.

Indeed, the Red Wings have had as many April exits in the last three years (two) as they did in the previous 16 seasons, going all the way back to the 1995 trip to the Cup finals. Last year's postseason lasted all of eight days for the Red Wings, and few outside Detroit are expecting this one to last much longer facing a Lightning team that led the NHL in scoring and finished with the league's best record on home ice.

"One of our coaches got a text from his daughter who said that we had no votes: 13 to none," Babcock laughed Wednesday, after a brisk practice and a stifling jog in the 90-degree heat here in Tampa, as he referenced ESPN's NHL playoff preview predictions. "So it's our job to prove 'em wrong."

Different game

Babcock and Co. are banking on last year's jarring experience being put to good use by some of the youngsters who got their first taste of the playoffs — players like Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco. Sheahan called it "an eye-opener" and was quick to say Wednesday, "It's not an excuse anymore that we've got no experience."

But the same thing's being said by the Lightning, whose general manager, Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman, certainly is well-versed in what it takes to succeed in the NHL playoffs. His team was swept out of the first round by Montreal a year ago, and that may mean as much as Tampa's 108 points in the standings this season.

"The playoffs are a completely different story," Yzerman said, while acknowledging he'd "prefer" to play a team other than one he captained for 20 years and led to three Stanley Cups. "There's greater demands on the players, physically and mentally. It's a higher level of hockey."

It's a different game, really, with more hitting and precious little time or space. And even less room for error, or patience, as a coach, which is why Babcock's making changes with his lineup — benching Jimmy Howard and Brendan Smith for now — even as he makes his pitch for self-sacrifice.

"If you don't want to get inside, don't want to compete, don't want to win races and battles, you have no chance to be successful," Babcock said. "It just doesn't work like that. There's a reason certain guys score at playoff time and other guys don't. You've got to be gritty. You've got to get inside, take the cross-check and pay the price to score.

"But it's worth it. That's the great thing about it."

And that, as much as anything, Kronwall agreed, "is what keeps us coming back," year after year after year.

How streak matches up

Longest active playoff streaks — four major U.S. pro sports

■NHL: 24, Detroit Red Wings, 1991-present

■NBA: 17, San Antonio Spurs, 1998-present

■NFL: 6, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, 2010-present

■MLB: 4, Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals, 2011-present

Longest active playoff streaks — NHL

Team, seasons, year started

■Red Wings, 24, 1991

■Pittsburgh Penguins, 9, 2007

■Chicago Blackhawks, 7, 2009

■New York Rangers, 5, 2011

■St. Louis Blues, 4, 2012

Longest all-time playoff streaks — NHL

Team, seasons, years spanned

■Boston Bruins, 29, 1968-96

■Blackhawks, 28, 1970-97

■Blues, 25, 1980-2004

■Montreal Canadiens, 24, 1971-94

■Red Wings, 24, 1991-present