DETROIT -- It's a number that usually astounds those who aren't very familiar with it.
The number 21 is how many consecutive seasons the Detroit Red Wings have qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Usually it's a secondary thought around Detroit and it keeps growing by one each year almost automatically.
Then this season came along. Suddenly the Red Wings' playoff streak is in jeopardy with three games left in the regular season. Detroit (21-16-8) is ninth in the Western Conference with 50 points, one back of the Columbus Blue Jackets for the final postseason spot, and the Red Wings have a game in hand on the Blue Jackets heading into the NBC Sports Network's Wednesday Night Rivalry Game against the Los Angeles Kings (7:30 p.m. ET) at Joe Louis Arena.
"I don't think anyone's thinking about it, but it would be sad to have the streak not continue," Red Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson said after Wednesday's morning skate. "If we win all three, we know we're going to be in [the playoffs], so we don't want to take any chances."
Detroit picked up a little help on Tuesday night when the San Jose Sharks beat the Dallas Stars 3-2 at HP Pavilion to prevent the Stars (48 points) from pulling even with the Red Wings in the conference standings. Dallas also has two games left, including Thursday at home against Columbus.
That means the Red Wings control their own destiny.
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"We're really aiming for one at a time and our mindset is to win every game that's left," Ericsson said. "If we win all our games it's in our hands, but if we lose a game we need someone else to lose."
Just how impressive is their current streak?
Well, consider the last time Detroit was eliminated from postseason contention was March 27, 1990 at Joe Louis Arena, when the Red Wings lost 6-5 to the Buffalo Sabres -- after pulling their goaltender with about four minutes left down two goals.
Rookie defenseman Danny DeKeyser, whom the Wings just signed as a collegiate unrestricted free agent March 30, was just 20 days old. Fellow Detroit rookie defenseman Brian Lashoff hadn't been born yet.
"It's incredible how many years in a row they've been in," said DeKeyser, who has one assist in eight games since signing and has worked himself into a regular role on the third defense pairing. "It's one of the longest streaks there is in hockey, so we just want to keep it going. As it stands, we're trying to fight and get our way in. We control our own destiny. It's going to be up to us to get the job done and that's pretty much all there is to it."
His teammates and Detroit coach Mike Babcock feel the same. Asked if keeping the playoff streak going factored into his team's motivation, Babcock quickly shifted the focus to a narrower scope.
"I think it does for sure, but we can get caught up in that or we can play the game [Wednesday night]," Babcock said. "I would much prefer us to just stay involved the process of what we're doing and play real well [against the Kings] and focus on the little things that we have to do real well to be successful."
Even goalie Jimmy Howard, one of the most open guys in the Red Wings locker room, has shut down morning skate interviews this week to better focus himself for games. They are, indeed, fighting for their playoff lives … yet the Red Wings also feel like they're already in the postseason.
"That's pretty much what it feels like," Ericsson said. "We know we have to win a certain number of games to stay in [the postseason hunt]. It feels like there's an extra round of playoffs and we just have to go through this first one first."
Prior to Wednesday's skate, there was some buzz going about injured veteran Todd Bertuzzi returning against the Kings from a painful pinched nerve in his back that's held him out since Feb. 7 against the St. Louis Blues.
The power forward, however, said he's not quite ready and hopes to return for Thursday's home game against the Nashville Predators. Bertuzzi and his lengthy injury issue is a prime example of how frustrating this season's been for the Red Wings.
They've dealt with numerous injuries to veterans, both up front and on the back end, and struggled to find consistency with a game-to-game lineup that's a patchwork of established stars and inexperienced youngsters.
Bertuzzi just hopes to get back in the lineup and do whatever he can to help the Red Wings keep the streak alive.
"I'm not a 100-point guy, so I don't know how big [it'll be], but I do feel that I can make an impact with the guys," Bertuzzi said. "I play for these guys and I play hard for these guys when I'm in there and I'll stick up for them and do what I can for this group. It's a great group, and these guys have been giving it their all. I just want to get in there and tow the rope with them and take care of this task that we've got ahead of us."