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Not taken lightly, playoffs are expected

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Red Wings fans have grown used to see their favorite team in the playoffs for more than two decades. (Photo by Getty Images)
DETROIT – The return of robins in the front yard, daffodils and tulips in bloom, and longer sun-drenched days with a slight hint of a chill in the air are all signs that spring has arrived in Michigan.

So too is the return of the Stanley Cup playoffs, especially for college-aged fans, who have grown accustom to the Red Wings competing in the postseason each year of their 20-something lives.

Think about it for a moment …

While the Wings prep for the start of their 21st straight run at the Stanley Cup next month, there are 23 other NHL teams that haven’t qualified for 21 straight playoff berths – combined.

Often taken for granted around these parts, even referred to as “The Second Season”, the consistency of reaching the playoffs is serious business for the players in the Wings’ locker room.

“It’s expected from fans, players, everybody. But it’s a good thing to expect,” forward Danny Cleary said.

For Cleary, like six of his current teammates, he knows the negativity of not playing in the postseason. The Wings’ forward played three NHL seasons before he played in his first playoff series with the Edmonton Oilers in 2000. That season the Oilers were swept by Dallas in a first-round series.

The pain of not playing for the league championship is indescribable, Cleary said. The pursuit of the Cup is the only driving factor for many guys and the primary reason that they work as hard as they do all year-long.

During the current streak, the Wings have reached the Cup finals six times and won four of them. The Wings are the sixth team to qualify for 21 straight NHL postseasons, equaling the Montreal Canadiens, who went to 21 consecutive playoffs between 1949-69.

So when players don’t make the playoffs, or worse yet, make a habit of it, the feeling is torturous.
“If anybody tells you that they’re happy with going home and not be in the playoffs, then that’s crazy,” Cleary said. “For me it happened when I was a young player and I don’t know if it hits you as much as you get older when you’ve been through it. But I think everybody dreams of being in the playoffs growing up because all of your vivid memories are of playoff hockey.”

In a franchise that has been so dominant over the decades, it’s truly amazing that defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom is the only Wings’ player to play in every playoff series in one of the club’s two 20-season runs. The Wings also strung together 20 straight postseason appearance from 1939-58.

“I've always made it so I don't know how it feels not to make it,” Lidstrom said. “I'm very happy and fortunate to have experienced it every year in my career. I'm sure it's disappointing not playing in the postseason. It's a relief to make it, but it's always something we come to expect here as an organization. We've done it for 21 straight years. The bar is set high here. And we expect a lot out of ourselves.

“The first goal and stepping stone is making the playoffs. The Stanley Cup is the ultimate goal, but to get there you have to make the playoffs and that's our first goal. After the regular-season is done you want to make the playoffs.”

Besides Cleary, other Wings to miss the playoffs with other franchises through their careers include forward Todd Bertuzzi, goalies Ty Conklin and Joey MacDonald, and defensemen Brad Stuart and Ian White.

White’s lone playoff experience finally occurred last season as a member of the San Jose Sharks, who bounced the Wings out of the Western Conference semifinals in seven games.

Bertuzzi endured five NHL seasons with the New York Islanders and Vancouver before he got a taste of the playoffs with the Canucks in 2001.

Stuart has missed two playoff seasons, once in San Jose, when he missed the second half of the season with a concussion, and in Boston when the Bruins finished 18-points out of the Eastern Conference race in 2006.

“When you’re not in it for the last month or so and just kind of playing out the year, that’s tough, but you still have to play,” Stuart said. “You’re playing for your pride and you never know who’s watching so you always want to go out there and always give it your best effort, but it is tough. It’s definitely not a good feeling.”

It’s quite the contrary for the Wings, especially guys who have spent their entire careers in Detroit and won four Stanley Cup titles, like Lidstrom and forward Tomas Holmstrom.

“I hope I never have to know that feeling,” Holmstrom said. “We have pretty high standards here. First it's the playoffs then win the Stanley Cup. There's nothing else.”

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill

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