There was talk coming out of the Olympic break that the Detroit Red Wings' quest for a 23rd consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs was far from a sure thing.
Now we know the fifth-longest playoff streak in NHL history and longest active streak among the four main professional sports leagues is alive and well.
The last time the Red Wings failed to qualify for the postseason was 1990, when George H.W. Bush was president. The Boston Bruins own the NHL record at 29 seasons (1968-96), followed by the Chicago Blackhawks (28 seasons; 1970-1997), St. Louis Blues (25; 1980-2004) and Montreal Canadiens (24; 1971-1994).
Since the start of the 1997-98 season, the Red Wings have won more regular-season games than any team in the NHL. The team's 113 playoff wins, which includes four Stanley Cup championships, also are tops in the League in that span.
Here are five reasons why the Red Wings are heading back to the playoffs:
1. A deep, talented prospect pool
What made Detroit's ability to keep its playoff streak alive was the fact that despite setting a franchise record with more than 400 man-games lost to injury, the team took the "next man up" approach by recalling players from their American Hockey League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins
The plan worked. The Red Wings had 37 players skate in at least one game and eight players made their NHL debuts. Included in that mix were 14 players from the Grand Rapids team that won the Calder Cup in 2013.
The call-ups were necessary at several points in the season as injuries to veteran forwards Johan Franzen, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson, as well as defensemen Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson and goalie Jimmy Howard, forced the organization to dig deep.
Some of the players who were subsequently called up have seized opportunities to establish themselves as regulars in Detroit's lineup.
Joakim Andersson, Tomas Tatar, Danny DeKeyser, Gustav Nyquist and Brian Lashoff all are playing significant roles, and coach Mike Babcock also was high on forwards Riley Sheahan, Luke Glendening and Tomas Jurco.
While the injuries depleted the lineup, some of those veterans are getting healthy, meaning Babcock not only has the luxury of a few savvy veterans but a group of battle-tested youngsters who can make an impact in the playoffs.
2. Masterful Mike behind the bench
Babcock certainly knows how to put players in a position to succeed, doesn't he?
Without the services of many key stars throughout the course of the season, Babcock just rolled along. He has been to the Stanley Cup Final three times, winning the Cup in 2008. He also coached Canada to the gold medal at the Olympics in 2010 and 2014. He pays strict attention to detail, and his players believe in his message: Possess the puck and be responsible.
Babcock reached a personal milestone with his 414th victory Tuesday in a win against the Buffalo Sabres, passing Jack Adams for the most in franchise history. Babcock has gotten the most from all of his players, including the ones called up from the AHL. He's a firm believer in not making any excuses and just rolling with what's available to him.
"We've had a ton of injuries, but I'm tired of talking about that, to be honest with you," Babcock said. "The reality is no one seems to get better. We seem to have them, and they're key guys, but I've always said each year you find players when you get opportunities like this.
"It's good because they're ready to take people's jobs."
3. Nyquist's emergence
Twice named the NHL's First Star of the Week and the League's Second Star of the Month for March, Nyquist has made the most of his full-time audition with the Red Wings.
He's looking to become Detroit's first 30-goal scorer since 2008-09, when four players (Marian Hossa, Franzen, Datsyuk, Zetterberg) hit the mark.
Nyquist plays at top speed, has great hockey sense, averages more than 16 minutes of ice time per game and seemingly has earned the trust of Babcock in big situations. He had a six-game goal streak in November and a 10-game point streak (12 goals, 14 points) from March 16-April 2, the longest streak in team history since Zetterberg went 11 straight in 2011.
4. A tower of strength on defense
Babcock would be the first to admit that his team might not be in the position it's in if not for Kronwall.
The 6-foot, 190-pound Swede not only is having one of the most productive offensive seasons of his career, but he continues to be among the leaders in blocked shots, hits and takeaways. He logs the most ice time of any Detroit player and usually plays against the top players on the opposing team. Keep in mind that Kronwall has experienced some of this success without the aid of Ericsson, his regular defense partner, who underwent finger surgery last month and will miss at least another two weeks.
5. Acquisition of 'Alfie'
The decision by Red Wings general manager Ken Holland to sign Alfredsson to a one-year contract last July has paid off in a big way.
Alfredsson, 41, has provided Detroit with needed offensive production and leadership at a time when a number of veteran players were sidelined by injuries. He's among the team leaders in goals, assists, points and game-winning goals. Alfredsson was part of an intriguing third line recently put together by Babcock, alongside Darren Helm and Jurco. It's a threesome that may stick if the production remains consistent.
"We've got to find ways to be effective against other teams and stick together and score some goals," Helm told the Detroit Free Press. "I've played with [Alfredsson] for a lot of the time that I've played, so I'm pretty comfortable with him. I'd like to be able to do more with him as skilled as he is, but I've got to play to my potential and things will happen."
Alfredsson is a proven playoff performer; his 51 goals in 121 playoff games are fourth among active players.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mikemorrealeNHL
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