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Despite adversity, Red Wings believe they can keep 22-year playoff streak alive

Nyquist scores 2 as Red Wings beat Maple Leafs 3-2
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Detroit Red Wings center Gustav Nyquist (14), of Sweden, celebrates after scoring against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the third period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

DETROIT — Jimmy Howard sits in the corner of the Detroit Red Wings’ dressing room, right next to an eraserboard bolted to a cinderblock wall. Every day, the staff updates the NHL standings, wiping out old numbers, writing in new ones. Every day, the situation is on display in black and white.

As Howard took off his goalie equipment after a game Tuesday night, he looked to his left and listened as trainer Piet Van Zant stood next to the board, pointed to team after team and reported on the action around the league in real time, looking like a TV weatherman going over a map of a storm.

By Wednesday morning, the board looked like this: The Columbus Blue Jackets held the final wild-card spot in the East with 76 points and 30 regulation and overtime wins. The Washington Capitals were right behind with 76 points and 25 ROWs, but they had played 70 games, two more than the Jackets and Wings. The Wings had 75 points and 26 ROWs.

“We all know what’s at stake – 22 years of making [the playoffs] and everything like that – and it’s good,” Howard said. “The bar was set high for us, and it gives us something to strive for each year. We’ve just got to keep battling, keep clawing, keep finding a way to get points, and you never know what’s going to happen.”

Not since 1989-90 have the Red Wings missed the playoffs – not since they finished last in the Norris Division and second-to-last in the Campbell Conference, not since they had guys like Bernie Federko, Gerard Gallant, Adam Graves, Petr Klima, Bob Probert and Borje Salming. No player in the NHL today was in the league then. Nine franchises in the NHL today weren’t in the league then.

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The Wings never came close to missing the playoffs for 21 consecutive seasons. They came close last season after the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom, but they won their last four games to squeak in – and then upset the Anaheim Ducks in the first round and took a 3-1 series lead over the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round, before falling to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in overtime of Game 7.

They should miss the playoffs this season. Finally.

Reason No. 1: They’re long overdue. No one can defy gravity forever, especially in an era with the salary cap and parity. Only one other team has made the playoffs every season since the cap was introduced in 2005-06, the San Jose Sharks, whose streak is about to hit 10 seasons.

Reason No. 2: Their schedule is tough. They have 14 games left, and 11 are against teams now holding playoff spots.

Reason No. 3: They’re decimated by injuries. They have lost 324 man games, second-most in the NHL, and counting. They have lost a player to injury in each of their past six games. But it’s not just the quantity of players missing, it’s the quality.

A big reason the Wings stayed among the NHL’s elite teams for so long, despite a lack of high draft picks, was the emergence of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg – sixth- and seventh-rounders who became superstars. A big reason the Wings made the playoffs last season was the leadership of Datsyuk and Zetterberg. In those final four games, Datsyuk and Zetterberg combined for four goals and 18 points.

Datsyuk has a bad knee and probably will miss the rest of March. Zetterberg is recovering from back surgery and probably won’t return unless the Wings make the second round. The Wings’ two best players can’t carry them this time.

Also missing: Justin Abdelkader (leg, out a week or two), Joakim Andersson (foot, out at least a week), Daniel Cleary (knee, out indefinitely), Jonathan Ericsson (finger, out two weeks), Jonas Gustavsson (groin, day to day), Darren Helm (concussion, out indefinitely), Tomas Jurco (ribs, out at least two weeks), Mikael Samuelsson (shoulder, out indefinitely) and Stephen Weiss (sports hernia, out indefinitely). Van Zant is a busy man.

The Wings were so desperate for help at center they traded for David Legwand literally a minute before the 3 p.m. ET deadline March 5, after receiving medical reports on Datsyuk and Helm. They don’t view Legwand as a No. 1 center, but they were down their top four centers and needed an established NHL player who could handle all situations. Legwand is their No. 1 center for the time being.

They were so desperate to boost scoring – and to minimize mistakes on the back end – they moved skilled, mistake-prone defenseman Brendan Smith to the left wing on Tuesday night. He hadn’t played forward since he was 15 or 16 years old, when he played on a line with John Tavares and Sam Gagner for the Toronto Marlboros of the Greater Toronto Hockey League. He lasted only a couple of periods before Ericsson suffered a broken finger and they slid him back to defense.

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Captain Henrik Zetterberg is out with a back injury. (USA Today Sports)

For years, the Wings were labeled as too old. Suddenly, there are kids everywhere. The Wings now have 11 players on their roster who won the Calder Cup in the American Hockey League last season, while the Grand Rapids Griffins have 10. They have seven players who hadn’t even been born yet the last time they missed the playoffs and five more who were less than a year old – in other words, still in diapers. They have had seven players make their NHL debuts this season, the most since they had 13 in 1990-91, the first year of the playoff streak.

They have been shaky in the third period. They were so shaky at the morning skate Tuesday that coach Mike Babcock said “the puck was like a hand grenade.” Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle even said: “We look at it that they’re an NHL hockey club.” He said the Leafs couldn’t take the Wings lightly. He was responding to a question and being respectful to the Wings under the circumstances. But that might have been the first time an opposing coach has said that about the Wings for any reason in recent memory.

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But will the Wings miss the playoffs?

We’ve been forecasting the Wings’ downfall for years. We’ve been wrong for years. One year, we will be right, but Carlyle was right. The Wings might have half a minor-league roster, but they are still an NHL hockey club. No one should take them lightly. The Wings beat the Leafs on Tuesday night, 3-2. They have games left against the teams they are chasing.

“Of course we can play a different style of game when we have Datsyuk and Zetterberg in the lineup,” said defenseman Niklas Kronwall. “There’s no doubt about that. But in saying that, we try to make the most of what we have.”

They still have veterans like Kronwall, Daniel Alfredsson and Johan Franzen, and if you have 11 players who won the Calder Cup last year, that means you have young talent that has won something at some level.

They have youngsters who were expected to emerge, like Gustav Nyquist, who has 19 goals in 43 games, and Tomas Tatar, who has 14 in 59. They have had pleasant surprises, most notably Riley Sheahan, who has held his own defensively matched up with the likes of Ryan Kesler and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. All the kids have come up from Grand Rapids having played for coach Jeff Blashill, who spent a season as an assistant in Detroit, teaches the Wings’ system and even sounds like Babcock at times.

“It’s basically the same,” said veteran Jordin Tootoo, who has spent most of the season in Grand Rapids. “So I think when guys get called up, at the end of the day, they know how to play the game.”

Alfredsson said the kids don’t try to showcase themselves when they finally get their shot in the NHL. They sacrifice themselves and stick to the plan. They play to win.

“It’s been impressive,” Alfredsson said. “It really has.”

The Wings have hope for the future whether they extend their playoff streak or not. Datsyuk and Zetterberg will be back next season, and if they can stay healthy, the youngsters the Wings have developed will slot into more appropriate roles behind them – and play relatively cheaply. Alfredsson, Cleary, Legwand, Samuelsson, Todd Bertuzzi and Kyle Quincey all are on expiring contracts. General manager Ken Holland will have lots of cap space to maneuver in the free-agent and trade markets.

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The Wings still have hope this season, though. They will have to make the most of their opportunities offensively, especially on the power play, because they aren’t generating as many as usual. They will have to be tight defensively, and when they make inevitable mistakes, Howard will have to be excellent. They will have to keep checking that eraserboard. They’re still ahead of teams like the New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators. The permanent marker doesn’t come out until April 13.

“We’ve just got to keep plugging on and give ourselves a chance every night,” Alfredsson said. “We still believe.”

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