Red Wings overcome season of injuries
Just because Red Wings players don't really talk about the franchise's streak of 22 straight playoff appearances doesn't mean they don't know all about it.
"Everybody in the league knows about it," defenseman Brendan Smith said. "You don't want to be that 23rd not to get it done."
When they were ravaged by injuries, including significant ones to Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, that looked like a very real possibility. Instead, thanks to a combination of masterful coaching by Mike Babcock, breakout performances by young players like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar and what Smith called the "Red Wing Way," Detroit is the second wild card in the Eastern Conference and will open the playoffs Friday at the Boston Bruins.
"Obviously we've got great coaching, good goaltending and it's been different guys stepping up at different times," winger Daniel Alfredsson said. "Tatar and Nyquist has been two guys that's been relied heavily upon, and they've handled that unbelievable. It's fun to watch when you see young players take responsibility and do well with it."
A few players who played a part in the Red Wings' impressive run — Tatar, Tomas Jurco, and Riley Sheahan — weren't even born the last time this team missed the playoffs. Others, like Nyquist, Smith, Luke Glendening and Danny DeKeyser, were in diapers.
"It's just that Red Wing Way is that you feed off of the system," Smith said. "We've had these bumps and bruises and injuries and whatnot, players out, but it's that whole system of it doesn't matter who's out. There's a new door open for somebody to step in and fill that position and play well. ... It's a testament to the older guys like Niklas Kronwall, who helped these guys and teach them that way."
Babcock, who could be a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's coach of the year, doesn't quite believe in passing things down from one generation of players to another.
"I think maybe some little things, but you've got to re-establish it each and every year," he said. "If you think it's there just because you put your sweater on, that's not the way it works. It's maintaining it, it's an accountability process that goes from year to year. ...
"The biggest thing to me is obviously we've got good players and then there's been a culture created and a demand and an expectation for success. To me that's what it's all about."
That's exactly the point, and it's one reason why Babcock is getting so much credit for the Red Wings overcoming 418 man games lost to injury to make the playoffs. It's a very different accomplishment than guiding Team Canada to a second straight Olympic gold medal in Sochi, Russia, going undefeated along the way.
And it's different than the previous eight playoff appearances under the 50-year-old from Saskatoon. Injuries have made this a challenging year, even if Babcock can't compare them.
"The year you're in is the most challenging one," he said. "It's just like marriage. You don't worry about the last one, you don't worry about the next one, you worry about the one you're in. It's the same thing. You've got to execute and you've got to find a way to get wins. That's all there is to it."
Those wins came from Babcock's coaching and general manager Ken Holland and his staff's drafting and developing. But Smith said players deserve some of the praise, as well.
"These young guys that have come up from Grand Rapids, who have been so instrumental, it's amazing," he said. "These guys are all playing 18-plus minutes and they're playing crucial minutes. Obviously it's a testament to Babs about how he coaches and all his Xs and Os and how he's a student of the game, but you can't look past these players."
Nyquist, who started the season with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL, had one stretch of 23 goals in 28 games. Alfredsson and Kronwall led the Red Wings with 49 points apiece. And goaltenders Jimmy Howard and Jonas Gustavsson each finished with goals-against averages under 2.70.
Most importantly, players raised their game as Datsyuk and Zetterberg were out. Had they not, the streak would likely be over.
Instead, Babcock was brimming with pride and confidence last week when the Red Wings clinched a playoff spot.
"I think our team's gotten better all year long, and our kids are understanding what it takes," he said. "We're a more physical team. We can't be backed off. I like us."
There's a lot to like, even if a matchup against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Bruins isn't one of them. But the Red Wings did come back to beat Boston at Joe Louis Arena on April 2.
Having Babcock, who coached Detroit to the Stanley Cup in 2008 and the final again in 2009, behind the bench is another positive. Gustavsson said Babcock "knows what kind of button to push," and that's something that has been very evident this season.
Smith looks at it as Babcock continuing and improving that "Red Wing Way."
"It's a testament to his resume and how good of a coach he is, as well as the whole organization, how they bring up young guys that can jump in and play big roles," he said.
Babcock considers it a coach's responsibility to make sure a player who's around four or five years turns into a good pro. At that point, he holds them all to a certain standard.
"They've got to be consistent in their effort," Babcock said. "Your performance isn't always what you want it to be, but your effort and your professionalism has to be, and it's something you can control and we really try to focus on those areas."
That's nothing new, which is part of the reason why this streak predates not only Nyquist and Tatar but Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Babcock and Holland.
"They've been obviously drafting really well to have the players to be able to come up and play as well as they have," Alfredsson said. "You bring (those young players) up with the core of guys that have been here a long time, that's learned from the generation before them. The young guys see how it's done, day-in, day-out to be a pro."