PITTSBURGH – Mission accomplished.
In what can only be described as one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent memory, the Red Wings got what they came for on their short two-game trip – three points and a guaranteed spot in the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs.
Riley Sheahan was credited with a bizarre game-tying goal with 1:15 left in regulation that lifted the Red Wings to a 23rd straight playoff berth. Sheahan’s shot from the right point skipped a few times before the puck fluttered over a stunted Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Wings eventually lost, 4-3, in a shootout when Penguins forward Jussi Jokinen scored the lone goal in the skills competition. But it didn’t dampen spirits inside the Red Wings’ locker room.
“They’re all satisfying every year,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “Obviously, we’ve had a tough go. Everyone gets injured. It’s just you can’t get injuries to too many of the wrong people and when we lost Pav (Pavel Datsyuk) and Z (Henrik Zetterberg) for so much of the year – I looked at it, those guys are going to play like 40 games (together) – that’s a chunk to have to play without your two best guys but the rest of the guys have stepped up.
“Our team is way better than it was at the start of the year because we got so many kids and they’ve won jobs and they’re going to keep their jobs.”
It appeared the Wings would lose before they had the chance to get a point when the Penguins took their lone lead in regulation, 3-2, on Jokinen’s goal at 9:17 of the third. But hope was restored on Sheahan’s even-strength tally when he covered Brendan Smith’s vacated spot and fired a knuckleball toward the net.
“I just saw Smitty go low so I went to cover his point,” Sheahan said. “Kronner (Niklas Kronwall) gave me a good pass, D-to-D I guess, and I got it on net where there was chaos in front and fortunately it went in.”
The Wings' 23-year streak still is just the fifth-longest in NHL history. Boston has the record at 29 seasons from 1967-68 to 1995-96. The San Jose Sharks have the next-longest active NHL streak at 10 straight appearances, including this season. The San Antonio Spurs have the next-longest current streak in the four major sports. It's at 17 seasons, including this season.
The eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference have now been settled with Detroit and Columbus both claiming the final two spots Wednesday. By the Red Wings picking up a point and the Blue Jackets winning in Dallas, the Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils were eliminated. Columbus and Detroit are tied with 91 points, but the Jackets hold the tie-breaker that would give them the first wild-card.
“It’s awesome,” Daniel Alfredsson said of making the playoffs in his first season with the Red Wings. “I think we worked extremely hard to get to this point and it feels great. I thought we played well enough to win today and it would have been even better but clinching a playoff spot is huge.”
The Red Wings dominated the Penguins through the first 40 minutes, but the teams were deadlocked at2-2 heading into the third period, despite Detroit holding a 22-10 edge in shots on goal. The Red Wings out-shot Pittsburgh, 13-4 in the first period, on its home ice where the Pens had lost five of the previous eight games.
“I thought we were better than them, we had a penalty kill sort out where they scored a goal but we carried the play for sure,” Babcock said. “We’re been playing well, we’re getting better, we look forward to being in the playoffs and whoever we get we’re excited to have.”
Detroit grabbed a 1-0 lead midway through the first period, striking first for the 40th time this season. Alfredsson’s initial shot ricocheted off the glass behind the Penguins’ net before landing in front of Fleury, and before the Pittsburgh goalie could locate the puck, Tomas Jurco took a back-handed swipe at it, propelling it passed Fleury.
The teams alternated scoring plays in the second period with the Penguins fighting back twice to even the scoreboard on a pair of James Neal power-play goals. The first game with Luke Glendening serving a minor penalty for interference when Sidney Crosby blitzed the Red Wings’ zone before dishing a pass off to Neal, who made a nice move to get Jonas Gustavsson to over-commit before the Pens’ forward tucked the puck into the open net at 9:03.
Jakub Kindl put the Red Wings ahead five minutes later with a blast from the right point. The Penguins may have well been short-handed on the play when defenseman Paul Martin was stranded in front of the Pittsburgh net for several moments without his stick. The Pens complained that Riley Sheahan was in the crease and interfered with Fleury but Kindl’s second goal of the season was allowed to stand.
Neal score his second power-play goal quicker than he did his first of the period. Sixteen seconds after David Legwand went to the penalty box for high-sticking, Neal fired a slap shot that beat Gustavsson at 16:42. Neal’s first goal came 24 seconds after Glendening was called for interference.
The game could have been a precursor to a first-round playoff series that would begin next week.
“I’m not spending a whole lot of time worrying about this stuff,” Babcock said. “We’re just in and whoever we get we’re going to be a tough out.”
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose
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