NASHVILLE – The Stanley Cup Playoffs without the Detroit Red Wings is a hard thing to imagine.
For 21 straight years, the Red Wings have qualified for the postseason, winning the Cup more times (four) than any other NHL team in that span.
Yet with seven games remaining in the season, the Red Wings currently are on the outside looking in. On Saturday, while Detroit was idle, the Red Wings saw themselves fall out of the top eight in the Western Conference and into ninth.
By virtue of holding a game in hand on Detroit, the Dallas Stars, with their 2-1 win over the San Jose Sharks, jumped past the Red Wings, even though the two teams are tied with 45 points. The Columbus Blue Jackets, with a 3-2 shootout win over the Minnesota Wild, also tied the Red Wings in the points column, although Detroit holds a game in hand on its Central Division rival.
It's unfamiliar territory for the Red Wings, who visit the Nashville Predators on Sunday. These two teams met in the first round of the playoffs last season, but this year both could be out.
"Well, you should know that it's a fairly urgent situation for us, but I think it's been like that if you go through our whole year," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "I've heard lots of times, 'we're inconsistent.' That's not true. We've been the most consistent Red Wing team I've ever coached and if you look at every month we're consistent but this is what we've been and we've been in the grinder since the start."
The Red Wings entered Sunday with shootout losses in back-to-back games and a goal differential of minus-4 on the season, not exactly the mark of a perennial powerhouse.
A number of key veterans – Todd Bertuzzi, Darren Helm and Mikael Samuelsson – remain out of the lineup and the defense corps has a decidedly younger flavor to it. Rookie Danny DeKeyser has played four games since leaving Western Michigan, but has taken the spot of some other rookies who have been in the lineup since the season's start. Babcock said Brian Lashoff would be sent to Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League just to get him playing games again.
"I think the whole season we've had to battle through a lot of different things, injuries and travel and all the different things like that," said left wing Drew Miller, in his fourth season with the team. "We're battle-tested so we'll be pushing hard here the last seven games."
Miller said he follows the scores so he was aware of what happened on Saturday night.
"Oh, yeah, every day," he said. "I usually check in in no matter beginning of the season or the middle or the end. I think everyone's aware of what's going on. You can't get too up or down because we slipped to ninth or whatever. We've just got to take care of ourselves here at the end here and if you don't win, you don't even give yourselves a chance to get in."
Much of the Red Wings' playoff hopes rest on the shoulders of goalie Jimmy Howard, who has played in 13 of the last 14 games. Howard's 35 games (85 percent of Detroit's games) are tied for the eighth in the League. It's a bit of a heavier load for the 29-year-old, who has never played more than 63 games in the regular season (77 percent).
"I feel fine," Howard said. "You expect this, especially how tight it is. Most likely, I was going to be in every single night and there's nothing wrong with that. I enjoy competing out there."
Howard said in some ways it's easier for a goalie to play that much because they are not over-analyzing their game. They don't think as much and instead they just play more relaxed. That could be good advice for his teammates, as the urgency will get ramped up in the last two weeks of the season.
"We've been talking about it for a while now," Howard said. "The urgency has to be there. We need better starts than what we've had the last couple of nights."
Babcock talked with admiration on Sunday about the Stars, who traded three big-name veterans, called up young players and have gone 5-1 since. He said the Stars play a "north-south" style instead of "toe-dragging in the neutral zone."
The Stars seem unfazed by the idea of pressure. Babcock seemed to say the same was true of his team.
"We've been in out and out of the playoffs all year," he said. "When you woke up this morning, you weren't in them. It doesn't make you feel very good. You want to be in them. But the great thing about it is we've got to win today."