Nearly two weeks ago, the Detroit Red Wings didn’t occupy a playoff spot and the Maple Leafs were fighting for second place in the Atlantic Division. As of this morning, the Red Wings hold the first wild card in the Eastern Conference, the Leafs hold the second, and the Red Wings have two games in hand. This is somewhat incredible for a number of reasons.
I won’t labor on the Leafs side of it, because their fans are sure to do plenty of that this week. How about them Wings though? The Red Wings have lost over 340 man games to injury and illness this year. That’s second in the NHL. They’ve been without Henrik Zetterberg now for over a month. Pavel Datsyuk has played approximately four games in the last two and a half months. Jimmy Howard has missed an inordinate amount of games over the course of the season. Niklas Kronwall has too. As I write this, in addition to Zetterberg and Datsyuk, Justin Abdelkader and Jonathan Ericsson are out injured, and Darren Helm has just returned. These aren’t simply Red Wings; they’re pretty much the best Red Wings. Injured players need to be replaced, sure, but some players are irreplaceable.
Given the current state of affairs in Hockeytown, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Red Wings run of 22 playoff appearances in a row finally came to an end this season. They have every excuse. For example, eleven of their current starters (including emerging sniper Gustav Nyquist, pictured above) played for the Grand Rapids Griffins last year. Right now, the Red Wings have more Grand Rapids Griffins starters on their team than the Grand Rapids Griffins do.
Despite The Streak, which is every Detroit fan’s pride and primary source of cheering motivation right now, it’s tough to imagine that the young Red Wings stand-ins are playing for anyone other than themselves at the moment. Several of them played their first NHL game this season. A few of them played their first in the last two or three months. At the outset, this was an opportunity–an enormous opportunity–to show the NHL decision-makers their stuff. Understandably, it’d be difficult for the Griffins to concentrate on much else. As time wore on and the Red Wings injury situation got worse, these young replacements got to play more and more as a unit under coach Babcock, wearing Red Wings uniforms, and with older, seasoned NHLers cheering them on. At some point, it must all have started to be a heck of a lot of fun. They’re gelling, and they’re competing successfully in the NHL against the likes of Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Ilya Bryzgalov.
I’m sure this huge opportunity, coupled with how exciting it must feel to be succeeding together at the NHL level, has overshadowed The Streak. The Streak by the way has involved five NHL head coaches, two legendary NHL captains, many current and future hall of famers, and countless octopi. Through The Streak the Red Wings amassed fourteen division titles, six President’s Trophies, and four Stanley Cups. Nonetheless, I couldn’t blame these stand-ins for not feeling all of that–for instead being motivated by other, more personal things. The eldest of them was only two the last time the Red Wings missed the playoffs. They’ve never known an NHL Playoff tournament without the Red Wings. They’ve never known hard luck Red Wings teams like the ones that existed in the years leading up to the Yzerman era.
For whatever reason though, for now at least, these kids–along with the Red Wings who’ve been able to put together healthy games here and there–appear to be getting this done. And as long as they are, who cares what their motivation is. They might just be helping to write another year of Red Wings playoff history, and in doing so, solidifying their own Red Wings futures.
We’ll find out over the course of the next couple of weeks or so, but the Grand Rapids Griffins might be carving out a spot for themselves in the NHL Playoffs … in disguise.
(photo credited to lapresse.ca)