Not many teams could survive the long-term absence of star centres Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, but the Detroit Red Wings appear to have done so.
With a 23-year postseason streak on the line, the Wings have managed to claw back into the race, and they currently sit in a wild card spot with a handful of games remaining in the 2013-14 NHL season.
They’ll probably begin the first round – should they hang on to their spot – against the Boston Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins. If the Wings do qualify, get their top players back, and continue displaying the urgency they’ve shown of late, they might pose a dangerous threat in the playoffs.
The Wings are an unknown in the Eastern Conference, having joined this side at the beginning of this season, after playing in the West in previous years. The East is widely accepted as the weaker of the two conferences. Aside from the defending Cup finalist Bruins, the East is pretty wide open.
If the Wings get Boston in the first round, they will not be considered favourites to beat the Bruins machine. Boston has earned points in sixteen straight games, and twenty-one of twenty-two. But the playoffs can be unpredictable, and the Bruins are notorious slow starters, having played in three straight Game 7 overtimes in the club’s last three first round appearances.
However, should the Wings stick to their current spot in the higher of the two wild card slots, they will play the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, and the Pens aren’t nearly as intimidating as the Bruins. Not to mention, the Penguins have struggled in recent postseasons, failing to meet expectations and return to the Finals since last winning the Cup in 2009.
If it’s Penguins vs Wings in the first round, and Detroit is healthy, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say the Pens can lose that series.
It hasn’t only been Datsyuk and Zetterberg the Wings have missed for long stretches this season. Gritty forward Justin Abdelkader has been sidelined for a lengthy period, and so to has summer free agent signing Stephen Weiss. But everyone might return in time for the first round and the Wings will look strong on paper. If they can translate a solid roster into a great first round opponent, Detroit is going to be dangerously difficult to defeat.
The Wings have by no means solidified a spot in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs – they 84 points, which is only three more than outsiders, the Washington Capitals. It is still very possible the Wings hit a wall in the final two weeks of the season and entirely miss the postseason. Possible, but hard to imagine, at this point.
Detroit is 6-3-1 in their past ten games. They’ve been winning despite the injuries, allowing them to climb back into the race and even pass a few clubs, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, who they’ve beaten in regulation twice over the past two weeks.
When the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs begin, it will probably be the Boston Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins that gets Detroit. The Wings can beat either, because anyone can win in the first round of the playoffs, but also, because the Wings are good.