The Detroit Red Wings making the playoffs is nothing new. They’ve literally been there every single year since 1990. Put another way, MC Hammer was at the height of his fame the last time an NHL postseason took place without Detroit.
So it really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the Wings seem poised for another playoff berth this time around. At 28-18-9, they currently sit second in the Atlantic Division. And they’re just five points behind the first-place Florida Panthers. If the season ended today, they’d be locked into a pretty entertaining first round series with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Once again, Detroit is doing damage. At some point, the organization was supposed to go through a rebuild, but it’s entirely possible that already happened and we all just missed it. The Red Wings have switched coaches without missing a beat. They’ve endured roster turnover that has included the retirement of Hall of Famers, but it hasn’t slowed them down. They’ve even dealt with injuries to Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg — the two pillars of the franchise — and they just keep plugging along.
This year’s group is a little different from the teams they’ve had in years past, though. Fifty-five games in, Detroit sits 19th overall in total offense, averaging just 2.51 goals per game. When the Wings were at their height, they overwhelmed opponents with their scoring, essentially asking their goalies to be solid, but not necessarily spectacular.
As for now? Well, they’re getting a pretty spectacular effort from 24-year-old Petr Mrazek in net. And they need it. Zetterberg sits second on the club with 37 points, and Datsyuk (29 points in 39 games) has been his usual, productive self when he’s in the lineup. Dylan Larkin leads the way with 38 points, and has quickly evolved into one of the top rookies across the league.
They have some talented pieces up front but, more often than not, they’re winning lower-scoring games. And much of that hinges on Mrazek’s impressive performance between the pipes. The young Czech has notched 21 wins while posting a mind-boggling 1.94 goals against average and .933 save percentage.
To put that in perspective, he leads all qualified goalies in those last two categories, with four shutouts thrown in too. And that means he’s popping up in the Vezina conversation now. Just a couple weeks ago, that honor was being all but handed to Braden Holtby with three months left in the season. Now the race is starting to tighten up a little. Terry Sawchuk was the last Red Wing to win the Vezina, and he did it in 1955.
Prior to this season, he had played in just 40 NHL games, starting 34 of them. And he had been decent, particularly in relief of Jimmy Howard down the stretch last year. That earned him seven playoff starts against the Lightning in the opening round, and he delivered a pair of shutouts before Detroit bowed out. He wasn’t perfect in all seven of those contests, by any means. But he got the experience, and he’s putting it to good use now.
Which is good, because Howard has struggled to find consistency of late.
After an up-and-down start to his career, Howard really seemed to be settling in during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. He went 21-13-7 that year, with a 2.13 GAA and .923 save percentage. But he regressed over the next two seasons, going just 44-32-22, while posting a GAA right around 2.55.
That left the Wings with some instability at the very position a hockey team needs to be the most stable at. But Mrazek’s emergence takes a lot of pressure off Howard. He can still contribute without feeling all the weight on his shoulders as the starter.
Meanwhile, the overall lineup can transition in some up-and-comers from throughout the system, without sacrificing their chance to win now. And as more and more of those players establish themselves, the organization as a whole can trend upward — again, without missing the playoffs in the process.
That’s how a team rebuilds on the fly.