It started with an upstart 1990-91 squad that was led by a 25-year old captain by the name of Steve Yzerman, coached by Bryan Murray in his first of three seasons behind the Detroit bench. Taking building blocks like 20-year old Sergei Fedorov, 21-year old Nicklas Lidstrom, 24-year old Vladimir Konstantinov along with Yzerman under his wing, the Wings would make the playoffs for three straight seasons after missing them 17 out of 24 possible seasons from 1966-1990.
How The Red Wings Extended The Streak
Four Stanley Cups, two retired numbers, countless Hall of Famers, four head coaches, and 1,009 regular season wins later, the Detroit Red Wings made it back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 25th consecutive season, with some help from the man who helped start it all behind the bench. Murray, now the General Manager of the Ottawa Senators, enjoyed a 6-1 victory at TD Garden in Boston in their last game of the season. The win made Detroit’s 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers obsolete in terms of making it in, as Detroit finished the regular season with 93 points and to Boston’s 93 to clinch 3rd in the Atlantic Division for the second straight season. Murray’s Senators helped in a big way today, but over the course of the previous 81-game slate, the Wings, albeit inconsistently, made hay themselves. Here’s why they’re back in Lord Stanley’s Dance.
The Emergence (And Dominance) of Petr Mrazek
Before the season began, the Wings were fresh off of a seven-game series loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in which Mrazek started all seven games, a new experience for Jimmy Howard who started every previous playoff series since 2010. After Howard and the Czech netminder traded starts early in the season, Mrazek took the job and ran with it, posting an 18-9-5 stretch from November 6th to February 12th with a .935 save percentage. He thirsted for support, as he got two goals or fewer from the group in front of him in 18 games during that stretch. The 24-year old net-minder was not deterred, turning in consistent start after consistent start that really saved a Red Wings team that struggled to score goals all season long.
Young Blood (again)
In 2013-14, it was Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, and Riley Sheahan that helped the Wings get into the playoffs with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg out with more than five centers at one point that campaign. Last year, it was more of the same with Tatar and Nyquist combining for 69 goals and 146 points to finish top-six in team scoring. This year, it was the youngest Red Wing to make the opening night roster since Mike Sillinger, Dylan Larkin. The University of Michigan standout led the team with 23 goals and finished third behind Datsyuk and Zetterberg with 45 points. In a year where Tatar and Nyquist underperformed, Larkin’s contributions despite hitting a wall (5G, 7P in final 29 games) were huge. In addition to the 19-year old Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Teemu Pulkkinen, Anthony Mantha, and Tomas Jurco combined to net 21 goals and 35 points, with Athanasiou scoring nine goals in just 37 games played averaging just over nine minutes of ice time.
Pavel Datsyuk Showing Us Why We’ll Miss Him
No matter if you are a Red Wings supporter or not, ever since 37-year old Pavel Datsyuk came into the League, he’s dazzled us all with superb hockey sense, thievery, and of course, Datsyukian dekes. Entering a 13th season wearing the Winged Wheel on his sweater, the Sverdlovsk native did it all again. After a 16-game absence to begin the season due to surgery, Pavel still contributed 16 goals and 49 points. Beyond his offensive contributions, Datsyuk posted a 57.13% 5-on-5 Corsi% (50 is average), leading Detroit and placing 10th in the NHL overall. He placed second to Luke Glendening in face-off winning percentage with a 53.8% and led the team with 46 take-aways (2.17 per 60 minutes). Although he has slowed down and is past his Selke days, Datsyuk still slows the game down for Detroit every time he is out there. With one year remaining on his contract and rumors swirling that he may not return, time is dwindling to appreciate the greatness that Datsyuk has left in Hockeytown game after game.
The Free Agent Signees’ Impact
On July 1st, the Red Wings added some veteran presence to their group of forwards and blueline, signing Brad Richards, 35, to a one-year deal and Mike Green, 30, to a three-year pact. Richards was brought in for some depth scoring and experience, winning a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004 and Chicago last season. Playing up and down the lineup this season, ending it on Datsyuk’s wing, he chipped in with ten goals and 28 points including four power play goals. Green was brought in to bring some offensive energy to the blueline and for the most part, he did. Bringing speed out of the defensive zone, he scored seven goals and 35 points to lead Red Wing defensemen. His possession numbers were quite positive in Detroit’s system as well, rounding out at a 55.13% Corsi% to place 10th among NHL defensemen. Both have combined for 212 playoff games, with Richards scoring 36 goals and 104 points in nine trips to the postseason. Jeff Blashill will look to these two to make even more of an impact come Game 1.
Special Teams Being Special Down the Stretch
The Red Wings’ power play entering March 19th’s contest against the Florida Panthers had been porous all season long, dropping to 25th in the League in conversion percentage at one point. The penalty kill ranked 18th before the All-Star Break and fluttered above and below 80% for most of the season. Both came up huge for Detroit down the final 11 games. On the power play, the Red Wings scored in eight straight games to begin the stretch, converting on 12/37 opportunities overall at a 32.4% rate. This pushed the man-advantage unit up to 13th in the league at 18.8%. On the other side of the card, the penalty kill successfully neutralized 29/34 opportunities, a 85.3% rate to vault the unit to 13th in the League at 81.5%. Assistant coaches Pat Ferschweiler and Tony Granato will have to keep the intensity level high going into the postseason for their respective units.
Jimmy Howard Stepping Up At The Biggest Time
32-year old Jimmy Howard’s status with the Red Wings now and for the future was in some considerable doubt when Petr Mrazek stole the net. It wasn’t just Mrazek’s play that trumped Howard from his traditional starting spot, but how the Syracuse native played himself. After posting a .928 save percentage October and winning four of six starts in November when the Wings employed the 1A-1B system, Howard’s season went downhill. Allowing three or more goals twelve times in a 14-game stretch from November 13th to February 15th, there was some talk that the Wings might deal him at the deadline. Detroit kept him, and it turned out to be a big keep at that. Since February 14th, Mrazek’s 24th birthday interestingly enough, the young netminder has posted a 6-7-1 record allowing three or more goals six times with a save percentage of .866. That opened the door for Jimmy Howard to take his net back, and he has. Winning four of five crucial games down the stretch posting a .930 save percentage in those five games, he has built he confidence back up and barring injury looks to be the #1 starter come playoff time. Have the tables turned from a year ago.
With the Bruins losing to the Murray’s Senators, the Red Wings will end up playing a familiar foe from a year ago in the first round, the Tampa Bay Lightning, managed by Murray’s then-25-year old captain, Steve Yzerman. The two teams should be more than familiar with each other, scratching and clawing for seven games in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals last postseason. Those were Mike Babcock’s Detroit Red Wings. Now, it’s Jeff Blashill’s turn to try and carry the team farther after guiding the Wings into the Tournament for the 25th consecutive season.