Late push saved Red Wings' season
The 2009-10 regular-season offered several twists and turns for a club that traditional qualifies for the Stanley Cup playoffs by just showing up in early October.
A unusually high number of injuries to key players, losing streaks and the introduction to a rookie goaltender all factored into a turbulent year for a team that had reached the Stanley Cup finals in each of the last two seasons.
Yet, in the end, coach Mike Babcock thought the Wings would still be fighting late in the season just to reach the postseason for a 19th consecutive time.
“I never realized we’d be battling trying to finish fifth,” Babcock said. “But obviously we had a real good run, and you’ve got to give our guys that got called up during the year a lot of credit for keeping us in it.”
The Wings knew that 2009-10 would be a rebuilding season with the exodus of several key players, including 40-goal scorer Marian Hossa, and forwards Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson, who had combined for 97 points. Rookie goalie Jimmy Howard would have to prove himself in the NHL after four AHL seasons.
Those were just some factors Detroit knew they would deal with, but were confident they could overcome. However, when injuries began sidelining their stars, hopes for a third consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup finals began to fade.
Injuries forced at least 10 Wings to miss at least five consecutive games; at one point, eight players were sidelined at the same time, with a total of 312 man-games lost.
However, different players stepped up to fill holes on Detroit’s battered roster, and kept the Wings alive until they became healthy at the perfect time.
“It’s different, but we’re here now,” Babcock said. “And every year, you don’t know what’s going to happen, you’ve got to make it happen for yourself.”
Here’s a month-by-month look at the Wings’ journey to the postseason with the team’s monthly record in parentheses:
The Wings opened the home portion of the NHL schedule on Oct. 8 with a bad omen. That’s when Johan Franzen suffered a torn ACL, sidelining him for three months.
Franzen had become one of Wings’ most important players, especially during the 2009 playoffs, and his injury had huge ramifications. With the NHL’s salary-cap rule, general manager Ken Holland couldn’t sign new talent to replace Franzen’s offensive production; he had to utilize players Detroit already had.
“We can feel sorry for ourselves, but nobody else is,” Holland said. “We're going to have to dig deep, keep grinding and keep competing.”
Franzen missed a total of 55 games.
Three additional key players fell victim to injuries in November.
Forward Valtteri Filppula suffered a broken wrist; forward Jason Williams broke his leg; and defenseman Niklas Kronwall sprained his knee. They missed a combined 94 games.
“We get hit with one guy and a few days later we get hit with another one,” Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. “It’s the way it goes sometimes. … Right now we’re getting them in a bunch.”
However, there were some bright spots, including the acquisition of forward Drew Miller, who immediately added offensive depth. Even as guys returned from the injury list, Miller kept a spot on the roster.
If there was a positive aspect of December after losing Henrik Zetterberg, Dan Cleary, and Jonathan Ericsson for a combined 32 games, it was the steady and reliable play of Howard in net.
Dec. 11 marked his third straight start. Babcock said Howard continued impressing the coaching staff, saying, “He’s been real good for us. He’s starting his sixth of seven here tonight, and if I’m not mistaken 10 of the last 13.”
Howard continued his stellar play, stopping a career-high 51 shots in a 2-1 win at Los Angeles on Jan. 7.
His team’s bid for a playoff spot remained in jeopardy, sitting at a precarious ninth place in the standings for most of the month. But with the return of Williams, Kronwall, Ericsson, Zetterberg and Cleary, the Wings began returning to form.
“Don't get me wrong, we're in the winning business and we need points, but I like the way our team has played,” Babcock said. “We know we're a work in progress and we think we're getting better all the time.”
Seven battered Wings were heading to Vancouver for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games — Lidstrom, Kronwall, Zetterberg and Franzen (in place of injured teammate Tomas Holmstrom) for Sweden; Filppula for Finland; Pavel Datsyuk for Russia; and Brian Rafalski for the U.S.
Of these seven, four had missed at least five consecutive games due to injury, and the other three had carried the resulting load.
In February’s six games, Lidstrom, 39, didn’t go under 24-minutes. His partner Rafalski, 36, didn’t go under 25-minutes. Datsyuk recorded three goals and three assists in that span.
Despite worries that the Wings’ Olympians returned too fatigued to make a final push for a playoff berth, they went anyway. And it couldn’t have worked out better.
After only one week of play, the defending gold medalists from Sweden were knocked out in the quarterfinals, as were the Russians. Rafalski was the lone Red Wings’ player to advance to the gold-medal game, thus dispelling anxieties about the seriousness of the fatigue factor.
And to everyone’s surprise, the Olympics did wonders for Detroit. Those who played in the Olympics returned on an adrenaline high from representing their countries amongst the world’s elite athletes. Those who didn’t play rested and recharged their collective batteries.
The Wings compiled a league-best 16-3-2 record and 34 points after returning from the Olympic break.
They still weren’t safe, and it took a combination of veteran leadership, sheer determination, and opposing teams’ slumps to make the postseason. Detroit didn’t relax until the end of March, but breathed a sigh of relief on April 11, when they captured the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference.
“As long as you get in, you've got a chance to do anything in the NHL playoffs,” Lidstrom said.
And get in they did.