Five Questions: Red Wings ride finish into playoffs
It was a long season filled with injuries and inconsistencies for the Detroit Red Wings, but they got healthy and their game pointed the right way when it mattered most. It allowed them to make a strong closing kick to clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 22nd consecutive season.
However, not all is rosy for the Red Wings, who needed a final-game victory to assure a place in the playoffs. Their best offensive players are on the high side of 30 years old, their special teams were average at best and they had injury problems all season on defense.
Yet the Red Wings fought through all their issues to get back to the postseason. Now comes the hard part: winning the franchise's first Stanley Cup since 2008.
Here are five questions they'll need to answer if they're going to make that happen:
The Red Wings certainly feel he's capable; otherwise the organization would not have signed him to a six-year contract extension during the season. But the numbers show that in three previous chances, Howard has won two playoff series. In the first round last year against the Nashville Predators, he allowed 13 goals in five games. If a lower-seeded team hopes to advance, chances are its goaltender is going to have to steal at least one game in the series. Can Howard be that guy?
2. Will youth be served?
If the Red Wings are going to win the Cup, their best players will have to be their best players. But Pavel Datsyuk is 34, Johan Franzen is 33 and Henrik Zetterberg is 32. Beyond their contributions, though, the Red Wings have to get something from their younger forwards. Coach Mike Babcock put together an all-rookie third line of Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson and Damien Brunner in late March, and it's worked well so far. The over-arching question, though, is will they be able to keep it going in the playoffs.
3. Can the special teams be special?
The Red Wings' power play and penalty kill ranked in the middle of the League this season, but both units got better as the games became more important, especially the penalty kill, which was impenetrable in April's games. They'll need to keep the level of play on special teams high -- especially the penalty kill -- to advance this spring.
4. Did their closing kick take too much out of them?
The Los Angeles Kings went 9-2-3 down the stretch to claim the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference last season, and rode that momentum all the way to the Stanley Cup. Can the Red Wings repeat that feat? Last year's Kings' core players were far younger than the Red Wings' best players. Will pushing so hard just to make the postseason take too much out of this year's Red Wings?
5. Can they stay healthy?
Few teams went through the season-long injury issues the Red Wings did. Their depth was tested many times, especially on defense and in goal. They seem to be a healthy group now, but will that good fortune continue into the postseason?