In case you hadn’t heard the news, the Detroit Red Wings clinched their 23rd consecutive postseason appearance Wednesady night. It is currently the longest such streak in professional sports. The Undertaker would be proud
Few things that won in the early 90’s still win today; namely zubas, Vanilla Ice, walkmen, the Dallas Cowboys and any outfit worn by Jerry Seinfeld and/or Cory Matthews. It’s rarefied air for the Wings. How much should we really celebrate the Detroit’s unbroken stretch of success though?
The St. Louis Blues rolled off a streak of 25 consecutive Stanley Cup playoff appearances that ended in 2004. The Philadelphia Flyers have had runs of 17 seasons and 11 seasons in their 46+ years of existence. The New Jersey Devils reached the postseason nearly every year of the 1990’s and 2000’s.
It’s simply easier to make the playoffs in the NHL both then and now. In 1991, the start of Detroit’s streak, there were only 21 teams in the league. Sixteen of them qualified for the Stanley Cup.
Even as the NHL continued to expand in the 1990’s, the gap between the teams at the top and bottom of the league grew without the restrictions of a salary cap. While their three Stanley Cups from 1997-2002 were won by a homegrown core, the Red Wings plucked pricey stars from other teams through trades and free agency. They had the money to do so.
The last eight playoff appearances, including this season, have also come with the benefit of the so called loser point (A team is rewarded with a point if it reaches overtime, even if they end up losing the game). In 2013-14 Detroit has garnered 15 such points, tied for third most in the league. Fittingly, Wednesday’s clinch came from a 4-3 shootout loss to the Penguins.
But let’s take a step back for a moment. Forget everything I just wrote. This is a tremendous accomplishment for the league’s marquee franchise.
First, the Red Wings streak spans across three distinct eras. The high scoring contests of the 1980’s spilled into the early nineties. Steve Yzerman, Detroit’s captain, posted back to back 60 goal seasons just prior to the streak. The streak-starting 1990-1991 team scored 273 goals, good enough for ninth in the NHL. Anaheim leads in that department this season with 257. The Red Wings have scored 218.
Second, Detroit dominated in the dead puck era, often considered the time between the first two lockouts- 1994-2004. Several teams, most notably the New Jersey Devils, clogged the neutral zone. Clutching and grabbing, hooking and obstruction was the norm. Scoring dropped precipitously. The Red Wings won three Stanley Cups.
The second lockout berthed the third era of the streak. Several teams who had come to dominate during dead puck struggled in an NHL fit with a salary cap and full of officials determined to whistle the slightest infractions. The speed of the game increased. Big, marauding defensemen became obsolete. The Toronto Maple Leafs, the Philadelphia Flyers, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Colorado Avalanche, once fixtures in the postseason, missed the playoffs.
The Red Wings didn’t. They won the Stanley Cup once again in 2008 and followed with a runner up finish in 2009.
While other teams have gone through coaching carousels, Detroit has had just four head coaches since 1991. My Flyers have had 12. Of the Red Wings four, Scotty Bowman and Mike Babcock will go to the Hall of Fame.
This is no fluke. Detroit has adjusted season to season better than any other team. They’ve been coached better than any other team. And most importantly, they’ve scouted and drafter better than any other team. Most franchises were skeptical of Europeans, even shunned them. The Red Wings happily nabbed them in the later rounds of the draft. Nicklas Lidstrom came in the third round in 1989, Sergei Federov, in the fourth. Pavel Datsyuk was a sixth round pick in 1998. Henrik Zetterberg was a seventh round pick a year later. They quickly became the best two-way players in the world.
This season might be the Red Wings most impressive yet. After a rash of injuries to stars Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, and Daniel Alfredsson, the Grand Rapids Griffins invaded Detroit. Experts penned eulogies.
But Tomas Tatar, a sprightly young Slovak with loads of talent, relished his increase in ice time. Highly touted Czech Tomas Jurco soon followed. In January, 24 year old Gustav Nyquist heated up. He has yet to cool off. The Swede has 21 goals and 34 points in his last 30 games. Not surprisingly, he was a fourth round pick in 2008.
However, the most impressive aspect of the streak has little to do with hockey. Fifteen years ago- even ten years ago- Detroit was the most hated team in the league. They were Yankee-esque in their additions. Future Hall of Famers Brett Hull, Dominik Hasek, Luc Robitaille, Brendan Shanahan, and Chris Chelios all pulled on the familiar winged-wheel sweater. They won like the Yankees too.
Now, this team has a mix of respected veterans and loveable youngsters. Detroit plays aesthetically pleasing hockey. They effuse a spirit rare in the world of the big four leagues.
The Detroit Red Wings, after 23 years of dominance, are once again likeable.
Philadelphia born. Raised in God’s country aka Duluth, Minnesota. Give me a frozen pond and an open pitch and I’ll be happy. Follow me on twitter @noclassfriday
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