When you make the playoffs every year since 1990, as the Detroit Red Wings have, you're going to run into some naysayers and skeptics along the way. That's been the case pretty regularly since the last lockout, and yet the Wings keep plugging along, filling holes and introducing new key characters from their seemingly limitless supply of dark horse draft picks.
This season has seen the Wings in as difficult a situation as we can recall in terms of keeping that playoff streak alive, what with the departure of future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement and veteran Brad Stuart to free agency and a host of injuries to the remaining blue-liners. But as the final week of the regular season began Monday, the Red Wings served notice that, hello, they're still the Red Wings, so hold off on the eulogies at least for a bit.
The Wings scored three power-play goals en route to a must-have 4-0 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes at Joe Louis Arena. The win didn't guarantee a postseason berth for Detroit; in fact, it didn't even push the Wings back into the top eight in the Western Conference. But it did put the Wings back in control of their destiny. They are one point behind the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild, who are in 8th and 7th, respectively. The Wings have three games remaining, as do the Wild, while Columbus has just two. Win out and the Wings are guaranteed an invite to the playoff dance once again.
Now, one big win does not blot out the issues that have plagued the Wings for most of the season. First, they have been unable to get into a real groove when it's mattered, failing to win back-to-back games in nearly a month. The offense has been spotty at best, and Monday's outpouring of goals was the first time Detroit scored more than three times since March 22. On Monday, the Wings relied heavily on the heroics of netminder Jimmy Howard, who recently signed a six-year contract extension. Howard stopped all 34 Phoenix shots, including 12 in the first when the Coyotes outshot Detroit 12-4 but closed out the period down 2-0.
Howard will need to be stellar down the stretch, as the Wings' final three games don't represent any kind of walk in the park. Detroit will host the Los Angeles Kings, who are still battling for home-ice advantage in the first round, and the lowly Nashville Predators on Wednesday and Thursday before visiting the Dallas Stars in their regular-season finale Saturday. The Stars have three games remaining, as well, and were just two points behind Detroit, setting up a potential winner-take-all dynamic for Game 48.
As for the Coyotes, Monday's loss virtually erases any shot at making the playoffs for a fourth straight season. It seems inevitable that last year's Western Conference finalists will join last year's Eastern Conference finalists, the New Jersey Devils, on the sideline as this wacky, shortened season winds its way to a conclusion. Just as the Devils were unable to overcome the loss of Zach Parise to free agency, the Coyotes likewise sorely missed the veteran presence and timely scoring of Ray Whitney, who -- not coincidentally -- has been a catalyst for Dallas as the Stars have stayed in the hunt for a playoff spot.