It began on April 4, 1991, in St. Louis against the Detroit Red Wings’ Norris Division rival Blues.
It was a victory, as so many playoff games over the next 25 seasons would be for Detroit. Steve Yzerman had a hat trick. Brett Hull had three points for the Blues.
And Dylan Larkin was over five years away from being born.
I thought a lot about Larkin this week, as the Red Wings’ 25-year playoff streak officially ended on Tuesday night when their tragic number hit zero, via a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Larkin is 20 years old. He grew up in Waterford, Michigan. The only Detroit Red Wings he knows are the Detroit Red Wings of annual playoff appearances and four Stanley Cups. Not ones that had two playoff appearance in 17 years from 1966-1983, featuring 15 different head coaches. The ones that had 25 straight playoff appearances from 1991-2016, and had a grand total of six coaches during the stretch, if you count Barry Smith’s five games in the interim in 1998-99.
So this is new to Larkin, this notion that the Stanley Cup Playoffs are sometimes held without the Detroit Red Wings in them.
It’s new to a lot of us.
But of course it had to happen now.
The narrative is as obvious as the coffee stains on any hack writer’s pants, this one included: We lost Gordie. We lost Mike Ilitch. The Joe closes its doors on decades of Hockeytown history.
All of this happens as the Red Wings’ historic streak comes skidding to a halt, thanks to a porous defense (2.95 GAA) and a generation of potential Next Great Red Wings that are either still too green or, in some cases, may never achieve that greatness. So, in the grand scheme, there’s no other time the streak could end than now.
That’s underscored by the fact that the Red Wings are down to their last living legend on the roster: Henrik Zetterberg, who did everything his 36-year-old body allowed him to do in an effort to carry this team to the playoffs. But after Pavel Datsyuk went back to Russia (while his contract enjoys the weather in Glendale), Zetterberg was alone among a generation of underwhelming talents, desperate free-agent signings and guys like Larkin who just weren’t read to lift Mjolnir yet.
Datsyuk was just the latest piece of the team’s heart to wither away. From that 2008 Stanley Cup team you had Nicklas Lidstrom, the backbone of the streak from 1991-2012; Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen, Zetterberg’s countrymen who were immovable objects in the offensive zone; Chris Osgood, whose legacy can be debated but whose results aren’t debatable; and the grunts that lingered from the Yzerman years in Kris Draper, Darren McCarty and Kirk Maltby.
The 2016-17 Red Wings, in no way, felt like those teams. It didn’t feel like there was a heart to the roster, outside of Zetterberg’s. It felt like a prestige drama that fails to get an Emmy nomination for the first time in a decade because all its stars have gone on to other projects, and then gets cancelled the following season because Anthony Anderson is no Chris Noth.
But enough about the end of the streak.
The streak itself is one of the most remarkable feats in the history of hockey. It’s a streak that spans different scoring eras, different financial eras and dramatic power shifts in the hockey landscape. It’s not the longest consecutive playoff appearance streak in NHL history, but it’s the most impressive.
And they weren’t just one-and-done appearances. (*COUGH* St. Louis Blues *COUGH*) Take out the last three seasons, and the Wings made it past the opening round in 15 of those 22 straight seasons.
It began in the Norris Division, in the Campbell Conference. It began in a 21-team league, with the Whalers and Nordiques but a year before the Sharks. It began in a divisional playoff format. It began when Gary Bettman was still working in the NBA.
It ends in the Atlantic Division, in the Eastern Conference. It ends in a 30-team league, with the Hurricanes and Avalanche and soon the Golden Knights. It ends with the Red Wings having qualified for the playoffs under four different postseason formats, with and without a salary cap that former NBA executive Gary Bettman installed in 2005.
It thrived through the best two decades of “win and reload” the NHL has ever witnessed, post-expansion.
Consider this about the streak, and reloading: From 1991-2016, the Red Wings made a pick inside the top 15 twice. There was Martin Lapointe at No. 10 in 1991, and then Larkin at No. 15 in 2014. That’s it. Everyone else was a diamond in the rough or, in the case of Zetterberg, the seventh round.
The rest of the time it was genius-level general managers like Bryan Murray, Jim Devellano, Scotty Bowman and Ken Holland – along with a braintrust that’s produced several general managers and team execs, like Yzerman in Tampa – that drafted smartly, if not highly.
Lidstrom, without whom this streak never happens, was a third-round pick in 1989. The defenseman taken before him? Veli-Pekka Kautonen. The defenseman taken after him? Jim Mathieson. (Yeah, we have no idea either…) This happened constantly.
They also played their hands brilliantly, while taking advantage of the economics of the NHL before the cap. It’s inconceivable that the 2002 Red Wings could exist if there were a salary ceiling, but there wasn’t. So this roster existed. And it was glorious.
The streak doesn’t happen if they trade Yzerman, coming close a few times in the 1990s. One wonders if it lingers as long as it did without Mike Babcock, whom they convinced to join the team in 2005 in what was considered a transitional period for the Wings. So much could go wrong, as it did for 29 other franchises over those 25 years, who looked over at the Red Wings through jealous eyes and wondered how to replicate their standards for excellence.
That’s what we lose when we lose this streak: That excellence, in a formal way.
That sense that beating the Red Wings meant making a statement. And while we’ve all had known this had been missing from the franchise since Lidstrom left, it’s now official with the streak dead.
Now comes the downswing, the kind that costs coaches and general managers their jobs until a new heart can be transplanted into the roster and the body springs to life again. It’ll happen to Detroit. But it make take a while.
But what a ride.
“We’ve given the fans wonderful hockey for a quarter of a century,” said Devellano to NHL.com, which wouldn’t exist until the Red Wings were five years into their streak and looked like this:
Some streaks you don’t want to end because you bathe yourself in the tears they create, like the New York Rangers’ ‘1940’ chants that died in 1994 or the Toronto Maple Leafs’ ‘1967’ jokes that will end when Babcock brings the Cup back to the city.
This streak? It was different.
It was a constant reminder that in an era of tanking and draft lottery balls and ownership doing the bare minimum to stay in the playoff hunt while qualifying for revenue sharing, the Red Wings did it right, did it with class and did it more successfully than any franchise in the last 30 years.
We’ll miss that.
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