Wings Face The End Of Playoff Era

Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard makes a save against the Calgary Flames April 17. Howard recently signed a six-year extension for $31.8 million. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Larry MacDougal)

Some events become so commonplace we tend to find comfort in their arrival. Without these regular occurrences, things just seem out of whack.

The Yankees are supposed to outspend everyone, Jon Stewart seems born to bag on Fox News, and a Red Wings playoff birth is as expected as boiled octopi on the blue line. Now, suddenly, the whole world seems in flux.

The Yankees have let some free agents pass their grasp, Jon Stewart strays from his conservative assault to crack wise on Barack Obama, and Red Wings suddenly find themselves wondering if they are good enough to make the playoffs.

So consistent the Wings have been that fans spoofed “The Most Interesting Man in the World” ad, replacing the suave Dos Equis spokesman with Nicklas Lidstrom, who pronounced, “I don’t always make the playoffs … Oh, wait, yes I do.”

The statement remains valid. Lidstrom retired after a Hall of Fame career, his record playoff streak intact. Since his rookie year during the 1991-92 season, the Red Wings have never missed the playoffs. Suddenly, April is a month of peril. After 21 seasons, four Stanley Cups in six appearance finals, and 21 straight playoff invites, the Wings are suddenly no longer a playoff lock. But for what reason?

Crop circles or solar flares? Is El Nino to blame or perhaps his more delicate but equally frustrating younger sister, El Nina? Maybe Beyonce, Jay-Z and their Iluminati backers have finally made their move? Or maybe the Wings’ extraordinary level of success has been halted by something quite ordinary – old age and injuries.

Whatever happens will likely come down to the wire, which is exactly what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hoped for when ties were replaced with overtime losses and a point awarded for failing in the extra period.

As of April 19, Detroit is tied for 10th place in its last Western Conference season, two points behind Columbus for the eighth and final playoff spot.

With five games remaining and only one on the road against superior talent – third place Vancouver – the Wings have an outside chance of gaining on Columbus, which has three games left, but it will take a near season ending sweep to do so.

After the 119-day lockout, the Wings began with season sans Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom, one of the games’ greatest goal crease pests. Many of those who were expected to fill the void weren’t able to as the bodies began to pile up.

Center Darren Helm has played one game, winger Todd Bertuzzi seven and Mikael Samuelsson four. Others have missed a handful of games, limiting team effectiveness as minor league call-ups were plugged into whatever sudden hole arose.

This lack of cohesiveness was most glaring in special team categories. Detroit, long one of the smartest and best coordinated teams in the league, struggled all season in power-play situations. Traditionally in the top handful of teams, the Wings currently rank 16th in power play goals and, most glaring, 20th in penalty kill percentage. A month ago it was much worse.

If this is the end, it’s been an amazing ride. In 1991, Detroit was led by a 26-year-old and now Hall of Famer, Steve Yzerman. Sergei Fedorov was a 21-year-old wunderkind, or whatever the Russian version is of the Germanic expression. Bob Probert was years removed from his retirement as a legendary head buster and fourth all-time best collector of penalty minutes. And Vladimir Konstantinov, already a Soviet legend at the age of 24, had six years before the horrific accident that cost him a likely Hall of Fame career and nearly his life.

If Wings fans are looking for solace, they may take comfort in knowing theirs isn’t the only long-time playoff participant to miss out on the final prize. New Jersey, its Eastern Conference counterpart, which has missed the playoffs only twice since 1990 while racking up three Stanley Cup titles, is eight points out of the playoff picture with five games to play.

No, I didn’t think that would help.