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The Detroit Red Wings still have stars such as Henrik Zetterberg, right, but many familiar faces have moved on. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
The Detroit Red Wings still have stars such as Henrik Zetterberg, right, but many familiar faces have moved on. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Analysis

Red Wings shift gears with eye toward extending playoff run Add to ...

The last time the Detroit Red Wings failed to make the Stanley Cup playoffs, Brian Mulroney was prime minister, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were Grey Cup champions, Seinfeld was in its first season on television and MC Hammer was wearing those super-sized baggy pants.

The year was 1990, and discounting the NHL lockout of 2004-05, the Red Wings have since made the playoffs 21 seasons in a row – the longest active streak not just in hockey, but in the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, too. We’re talking Hammer Time, U Can’t Touch This.

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But the streak is now in peril, with Detroit clinging to eighth place in the Western Conference while trying to fight off the Columbus Blue Jackets and Dallas Stars.

It’s dangerous new territory for a team used to polishing its act with plenty of games left before the opening round of the playoffs. And yet, this is exactly where the team’s brain trust expected the Red Wings to be late in the 2013 season.

After losing too many veterans to retirement (Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Brian Rafalski) as well as to other teams (Jiri Hudler, Brad Stuart, Marian Hossa), Detroit finds itself with a significant gap between its few ace players and a thinning support staff. Add to that a sub-par season by forward Johan Franzen (nine goals in 35 games) and injuries to Darren Helm, Todd Bertuzzi and Mikael Samuelsson and scoring has become an issue for a team that used to be able to play it any way necessary and produce with frightening regularity.

Not so much these days.

“When you get 125 points and you drop the puck in the first round [of the playoffs], there’s pressure,” head coach Mike Babcock said prior to Wednesday’s game against the Calgary Flames. “Now, the pressure on us is to maximize our potential and be as good as we’re capable of being. I think we’re where we should be, to be honest with you. I think we’re battling hard. I’ve heard all year we’re not consistent. We are consistent. You go through each month we’re one game or two games over [.500] each month. This is what we are.”

The Red Wings’ metamorphosis is especially evident in goal. Although the team has had good goalies in the past, it chose not to go long term or overpay for the position, instead using its money for pivotal players up front and on defence. On Tuesday, Detroit announced it had signed goaltender Jimmy Howard to a six-year contract extension worth $31.8-million (U.S.).

Again, Babcock says, the signing was predicated by what the Red Wings have become as they fight for the playoffs.

“[Howard has] worked hard every day in practice, been a team leader for us on the ice, that’s made a huge difference. The other thing is, our team is not like it once was,” Babcock explained. “We could get by with very few stops, now we need stops. Our goaltender has to be better for us to be successful.”

Howard has kept Detroit in the hunt with three shutouts and a goals-against average of 2.31. Knowing the No. 1 job is undeniably his, and knowing what the Red Wings have accomplished since 1990, including four Stanley Cup wins, Howard believes there is enough motivation for the team to extend its record playoff streak to 22 seasons.

“There hasn’t been any panic, that’s for sure. But there is a sense of urgency,” he said. “The guys who have played before us have set the bar real high. It’s a good thing. In Detroit, every single year it’s [been]: make the Stanley Cup playoffs and make a run for the Cup. So those standards, even though they’re high, it’s something for us as a team to go after.”

As the regular season winds down, the Red Wings’ reality is they’re no longer about first place in the West but eighth. To earn even that, the players have adopted an old-style tactic to a new dilemma.

“The way we’re approaching it? We’re in the first round [of the playoffs] right now,” defenceman Kyle Quincey said.

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