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Youth Carry Wings Into Postseason

The Detroit Red Wings like experience. For the past decade, the Original Six member rode the collective skill of veteran players to maintain its status as the league’s most stable franchise. For talented players on its successful minor league affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, the wait can be a long one. The Wings, as it often has been repeated, likes its players to be over-prepared. That’s a luxury few teams can enjoy.

It’s with this thought in mind that Detroit’s latest playoff appearance becomes most notable.

Faced with an avalanche of injuries – more than 400 playing games missed, including future Hall of Famers Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg – Detroit turned toward youth in an effort to push its consecutive playoff streak to 23 straight seasons. It worked.

In Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar, Luke Glendening, Danny DeKeyser, Brian Lashoff and Tomas Jurco – none older than 24 – the Wings found a collection of players who have added the speed and grit the team sorely lacked. Last year, the group helped Grand Rapids win the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup. This season, the goal is the same, just bigger. They won’t make it, but the runup to the playoffs has been a joy to watch.

Among this new generation of Wings, none has had a bigger impact than Nyquist.

Called up from Grand Rapids in November, the 24-year-old Swede scored five goals in his first two months. Since then, he has been the NHL’s hottest scorer with 23 goals and 15 assists in 33 games.

One of the reasons Detroit won’t win the Stanley Cup is because of deficiencies along the blue line. That has nothing to do with DeKeyser. At 24, the Detroit native is one of the best young defensemen in the league. He’s a strong skater who seems to have a natural gift for annoying stick handlers. At 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, he may lack the heft of many top defensemen, but hitting is more about attitude than physics, and lifting an opponent’s stick to steal pucks and disrupt shots doesn’t get better with weight.

Both players were typical Detroit development guys. Nyquist was a fourth-round pick in 2008, and has bounced between leagues 11 times. Tatar, the 60th pick in 2009, made nine such journeys between Detroit and Grand Rapids.

The biggest recipient of the youth movement, beyond season-ticket holders, has been head coach Mike Babcock, who finds himself as a serious candidate for the Jack Adams Award (Coach of the Year). Babcock’s handling of the young squad has been masterful. He’s kept things simple and played to their strengths, which has been key to building their confidence.

How far Detroit goes in the playoffs will be greatly determined by how it finishes the season. (As of this writing, the Wings have two games left on the schedule.) A win or an overtime loss to Carolina and St. Louis would likely give Detroit the seventh seed and an opening-round matchup against division-leading Pittsburgh. If not, the Wings will open the playoffs against President’s Trophy-winning Boston.

(Some) NHL Awards

* Stanley Cup: Boston. Too deep, too good.

* Adams Award: Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh. More than 500 games missed and the best record in the Metropolitan division.

* Hart Trophy (MVP): Sydney Crosby. League’s leading scorer (by a ton) and had to carry team with Evgeni Malkin on IR.

* Calder Trophy (Top Rookie): Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon. Leads all rookies with 56 points, has a plus-20 rating and five game-winning goals.

* Norris Trophy (Best Defenseman): Chicago’s Duncan Keith. Not a big hitter, but second among defense-men in scoring and a plus-22.

* Vezina Trophy (Top Goalie): Tuukka Rask, Boston. A .929 save percentage, 2.06 GAA and seven shutouts on NHL’s best team.