Death, taxes and Wings success unavoidable

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! Sports

Weren't these guys supposed to be getting old a couple years ago?

Wasn't a salary cap going to curtail their ability to acquire more talent than most, cutting the power of their big bankroll?

Without ever picking close to the front of a draft, when exactly was that handicap going to finally catch up to them?

The Detroit Red Wings continue to defy logic. In a sport that has never seen such parity, this Original Six franchise is vastly different. In terms of unfailing annual success, the Wings have joined that other pair of other inevitables – death and taxes – and it's something to admire.

Detroit sits atop the overall standings, having earned points in all but six of 31 games heading into Saturday's game against visiting Florida. The Wings are 9-1-2 in their past 12 games and are the highest-scoring team in the league. On pace to win at least 50 games for the third straight season, Detroit looks to match the Montreal Canadiens of 1974-82 as the only teams in NHL history to reach 100 points for eight straight seasons. And, lest we forget, the Wings own the longest current postseason streak in pro sports with 16 straight playoff appearances, including 15 in a row that have started on home ice.

"When someone told me the other day we were ahead of the pace of three years ago, I was shocked," coach Mike Babcock said, referring to Detroit's 58-16-8 record his first season with the Wings in 2005-06. "But the league is tight, there's no question about it. We have to hope that we can stay healthy so we can maintain a good pace."

You won't catch Babcock or any of the Wings getting cocky and taking success for granted. Starting with Thursday's shootout loss at home against Edmonton, the Red Wings began a stretch of playing 10 games in 19 nights. Babcock expects the busy period to be a challenge for his team.

"I would say on a nightly basis, it doesn't matter who comes in here or where we're at, they have an opportunity to beat us and vice versa," he said. "We're a pretty confident group. I think we're a pretty poised group, that we can find a way."

The mantle of excellence and winning from the recent Steve Yzerman/Brendan Shanahan era has been passed on to expertly-skilled European forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, who form arguably the most dangerous 1-2 tandem in the league.

Zetterberg, the 27-year-old graceful Swede, started the season by scoring in each of his team's first 17 games (13 goals, 27 points). Datsyuk, 29 and a shifty Russian, has scored in all but two of Detroit's past 14 games (10 goals, 20 points). Both are among the league's season scoring leaders.

"I thought Zetterberg was the best player in the NHL in the first six weeks of the season," Babcock said. "I hear everybody talking about (Vincent) Lecavalier and (Sidney) Crosby. But the best player in the league right now is Datsyuk, without any question, in my opinion. He just upped the ante that much. "

It's also the unsung supporting cast of players up front who make the forward group special – Tomas Holmstrom, Mikael Samuelsson, Jiri Hudler, Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Daniel Cleary, Tomas Kopecky, Matt Ellis along with glue guys Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Aaron Downey and Dallas Drake.

Is the list flashy like the roster was with Brett Hull, Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Luc Robitaille, Slava Kozlov, Darren McCarty, Yzerman and Shanahan? Obviously not, but no one is complaining about the current results.

"When I came here the first year, they weren't the guys yet," Babcock said of his young forwards. "They were starting to be. But they've kind of emerged, we've grown here and we're a much more youthful team."

The one constant, through the dynasty years of three Stanley Cups in six seasons from 1997-2002 and now has been defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom. The 37-year-old captain, a third-round pick in 1989, is in his 16th season with the Red Wings. He's averaging 28 minutes a night and showing no signs of being anything less than the annual Norris Trophy candidate he's been since his prime.

"Nick drives the bus here," Babcock simply states.

That bus includes Chris Chelios sitting darn close to the front, too. Experience and the example he sets at age 45 in terms of fitness, competitiveness especially at playoff time, leadership and passion for the game is unrivaled.

The goaltending has been a surprise in the respect that Chris Osgood, 35, has come out with 14 wins, a 1.75 goals-against average and .928 save percentage. That's allowed slow-starting Dominik Hasek, 42, to ease into his 16th season.

"I've said to Dom all along, to Drake and to Chelios, 'You guys aren't an everyday player in the first 40'," Babcock said. "They want to play every day and they're hard-headed about it. But the bottom line is, we need those guys in the second half and we need them in the last 20 and especially in the playoffs."

Ah, the playoffs. How unpredictable has this portion of the season become? Anaheim was the best team in hockey last season, and it was rewarded with its first Stanley Cup. But it very easily could have been Detroit's title. The Red Wings surprised most by coming back against San Jose, and then were on the verge of going up 3-2 with a 1-0 lead in Game 5 and less than a minute remaining.

How often have home teams in that position won? In the history of best-of-seven NHL playoff series' from 1939 through 2006, road teams that trailed by the slimmest margin had a record of 8-347. If Detroit holds on, or wins in the resulting overtime, it goes on to the Cup finals, and probably takes care of Ottawa, too.

Babcock knows the line won't be any less fine in four months when the playoffs roll around again.

"In the end, I believe there's going to be such parity that the difference between being 1 and 8 (seeds) is going to be hardly anything," he said. "I think there's going to be tons of upsets at playoff time if you look at the numbers. We're just trying to get ourselves ready to be successful obviously for the long-term."

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