It wasn't easy for the Detroit Red Wings to extend their string of playoff appearances to 22 seasons, but a sensational late push got them there.
They finished April going 7-3-3, including winning the final four, a strong run that, in a way, mirrored what the Los Angeles Kings did last season to clinch a playoff spot. A strong closing kick sparked the Kings to the Stanley Cup last year, and it can do the same for the Red Wings.
These aren't the Red Wings of a decade ago, who overwhelmed teams with their star power. It isn't even the Red Wings team of a half-decade ago, a group that was powered by Nicklas Lidstrom, a Hall of Fame defenseman.
A few of the players from the Wings' last Cup champion remain, and though they may be older, they're still capable of carrying the Red Wings to 16 more postseason wins.
At 34, Datsyuk had a flashback season, playing a full season and scoring at a point-per-game clip for the first time since 2008-09. He remains one of the most exciting players in the League, capable of making game-changing, highlight-reel plays.
Zetterberg, 32, remains the perfect complement. Healthy and productive offensively in his first season as team captain, like Datsyuk he averaged a point per game. He also scored the first two goals in the Red Wings last game of the season, a must-win scenario against the Dallas Stars.
With Datsyuk and Zetterberg, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has the good fortune of playing the pair together to overwhelm teams, or separate them to spread the offensive wealth.
Two other members of that 2008 team have evolved into the leaders on defense. After a slow start, Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson (a rookie on the Cup team who didn't play in the playoffs) have become an effective duo capable of playing major minutes in all situations.
There are a few youngsters chipping in, as well. Much like the Kings had younger players inherit major roles on lower lines during their championship run, the Wings have put together an all-rookie line of Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson and Damien Brunner. The speedy trio has gotten better and better since being put together in late March.
Defensively, Danny DeKeyser, 23, could be a wild card. Signed earlier in April, the college free agent has used his strong skating and puck-moving ability to move past veterans Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo to claim a full-time job.
Jimmy Howard, 29, was a workhorse down the stretch and is among the biggest reasons Detroit extended its streak of playoff appearances to an astounding 22.
And with Babcock behind the bench, there won't be a situation that possibly could surprise or overwhelm him.
The Kings rode their strong finish all the way to the Stanley Cup. The Red Wings are more than capable of following their lead.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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