NHL

This is the story the Detroit Red Wings want to write: ‘We belong in the playoffs’

This is the story the Detroit Red Wings want to write: 'We belong in the playoffs'

Remember what it is like when the Detroit Red Wings make the playoffs?

It was a tradition for a quarter of a century, a yearly given come April on par with taxes being due. Then the franchise sank into a rebuild, and missing the playoffs in 2017 turned into a seven-year event. Now it looks like, at last, the Wings might really make it past the regular season. They enter the final three weeks with a berth within their grasp — much more so than in previous years, when they were still in it mathematically, but not realistically.

“I think it feels special, but it also feels real,” Moritz Seider said. “We earned it to be in this position. We just have to put nerves or excitement by the side and grind. Every game is a playoff game for us and hopefully we can build momentum and be ready for something we’ve all been waiting for. It’s a lot more fun playing intense games now and hopefully be part of a cool experience here.”

Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin, second from right, celebrates his goal against the New York Islanders in the second period at Little Caesars Arena on Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Detroit, Michigan.

ROAD WARRIORS? With Dylan Larkin back, Red Wings ready to ‘eat any point’ on 5-game trip

The Wings (36-29-6) began a five-game road trip Saturday with a 1-0 loss to the Nashville Predators, but it was a performance that more times than not will lead to banking points; the tight result against a red-hot Western Conference foe should build confidence on a trip where success is crucial to bringing playoff hockey to Detroit.

The only homegrown — that is, drafted and developed by Detroit — Red Wing on the team that made the postseason in 2016 is Dylan Larkin. Back then, he was a rookie, and the Wings were playing at Joe Louis Arena; now he’s a nine-year veteran with the captain’s “C” on his sweater and the Wings are still waiting for their first playoff game at Little Caesars Arena. When he returned from an eight-game absence, during which the Wings went 2-6, Larkin spoke about how hard it was to watch his team squander the leeway built up during January and February, which had the Wings sitting in the East’s first wild-card berth.

“It was extremely challenging, but I think we’re all in this together,” he said. “Every season is long and things happen and whatnot. We have a special group and we showed it. I never question our care, or how much guys care for each other and the team in that room, and I knew we would come out of this and turn it around.

“Our whole goal all year has been trying to write a story as a group and play for each other. I’m really proud of the way this group has done that all season long. If you asked any guy in that room if we’d be in this position, everyone would take it. It just validates that feeling, that we belong in the playoffs.”

Belong in the playoffs. That’s a phrase that wasn’t even whispered just four years ago, when the Wings were the worst team in the NHL. Steve Yzerman should be recognized as the league’s top exec at some point for how he has transformed the franchise in just five years, despite never drafting higher than fourth (and that was just once, in 2020 after the Wings finished with the league’s worst record) or landing a marquee free agent from a market that rarely sees top talent available.

There was no bigger endorsement that this team does “belong in the playoffs” than Yzerman’s decision at the March 8 trade deadline to not make any additions. That was a referendum on the present, and the future — this team can advance, and it shouldn’t cost assets such as draft picks or prospects.

Detroit Red Wings defenseman Simon Edvinsson (77) stops a New York Islanders right wing Hudson Fasching (20) shot in the first period at Little Caesars Arena on Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Detroit, Michigan.

TURNING IT AROUND: Red Wings hope ‘kick in the’ (ahem) rear will finally lead to better starts

“We love to see support from Steve, we love everything he is going,” David Perron said, “but after it’s all said and done, we focus on what we can do.”

It was a bad, baffling, look when the Wings ran up four straight losses after the deadline, including two to the draft lottery-bound Arizona Coyotes. Then there was the first period against the also-lottery-bound Columbus Blue Jackets on March 19, which was such an aberration coach Derek Lalonde publicly wondered if the team had quit.

Those kind of bumps can’t happen again, not with just 11 games left (and seven of those on the road). If they want to write themselves into the playoffs, the Wings need to play energetic, defense-first hockey. Losses happen, but going without at least giving an effort — which was lacking during that seven-game skid — won’t get the Wings the ending they crave.

Larkin referred to this time of year as “an emotional roller coaster,” because of the day-to-day tumult — the standings are tight, as the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals give close chase in the wild-card race, and a loss might mean a day spent outside the playoff picture.

“We’re at the time of the year where you’re playing every other day,” Larkin said. “It’s hard. Going through adversity, we’ll see what it does for us, but I don’t think the way we’ve come out of it it’s a bad thing.”

Detroit Red Wings goaltender Alex Lyon (34) makes a save on a shot by Nashville Predators left wing Filip Forsberg (9) during the first period at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday, March 23, 2024.

It’s growth for the Wings to be so close to securing a playoff spot. Now they just have to write an ending that has them introducing LCA to playoff hockey.

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Her latest book, “On the Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Draft,” is available from  Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Red Wings hunting playoffs: ‘Feels special, but it also feels real’

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