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Season comes down to do-or-die game

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings

It's been a season of ups and downs for the Red Wings. But everything seems to be coming around at the right time, even for Johan Franzen, who has points in 10 of the last 12 games. (Photo by Dave Reginek)

DETROIT – Win or lose, the Red Wings’ sprint to the finish reaches its suspenseful conclusion Saturday at American Airlines Center in Dallas.

Earning a single point against the Stars will give the Red Wings a place at the Western Conference playoff table. Lose in regulation and Detroit’s players can begin a long summer vacation, well, unless Columbus also losses its season finale, in which case, the Wings still get invited to the postseason dance for the 22nd consecutive time.

It’s been a season of unpredictable ups and downs for the Red Wings, who saw 18 different players miss more than 240 combined games because of various injuries and illness. In 1995, during the last 48-game season, Detroit players lost 102 games due to injury.

Fortunately, the Wings were able to tap their minor-league affiliate in Grand Rapids for young players to fill vacancies until injured players returned to the lineup. Extremely talented guys like Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson, Tomas Tatar, Brian Lashoff, Jakub Kindl, Petr Mrazek, and even undrafted free agent signee Danny DeKeyser all made meaningful contributions at some point or either in a Wings’ sweater this season.

Other problems persisted for the Wings, like the inanimate power play that went two months before scoring its first goal on the road, and the defense’s inability to protect leads. And then there were unexplainable losses to Calgary, and even to Columbus, at a time when the Blue Jackets resided at or near the bottom of the standings early on.

“Our team's not the same,” Wings coach Mike Babcock admitted. “That doesn't mean we're not allowed to grow a new product.”

While there are a few different playoff scenarios still in play, the Wings are only in this do-or-die situation by virtue of the “new product’s” remarkable turnaround. They pulled off an incredible three-game sweep this week, beginning a day after their return from Western Canada. Monday’s win is significant, because traditionally the first home game after returning from the West Coast has been a nightmare game for them.

But they managed to clobber Phoenix on Monday, shutting out the Coyotes. Two days later, they defeated Los Angeles before knocking off Nashville on Thursday. The Red Wings can establish their longest winning streak of the season with a win against the Stars.

“The three games didn't happen,” Babcock said. “What happened was you keep getting better so you earn confidence to feel good about yourself, that's over a long period of time. We were playing real well before we started winning. We were losing … played good teams and found a way to self-destruct.”

Certainly nobody thought it would be easy for this team as it entered a new era without Nicklas Lidstrom, their indescribable leader for the past two decades. His decision to retire as a four-time Stanley Cup champion and seven-time Norris Trophy winner, coupled with some other roster changes, left more questions than answers at the start of an abbreviated training camp in January.

Our team's not the same. That doesn't mean we're not allowed to grow a new product.Red Wings coach Mike Babcock

But now, the Red Wings just might be playing their best hockey. They have four lines rolling, and the defense has been spectacular at clearing bodies from in front of the net for goalie Jimmy Howard, who has been the team’s MVP thus far.

“I think we've gotten a lot better as a team,” Babcock said. “All you got to do is look back at our first segment, our penalty killing was 70 percent and our power play for 0-for. We just continued to get better as a team. That's what happens when you have young people, especially with no training camp. We got a long way to go, still got to find a way to get in the playoffs.”

Offensively, everything seems to be coming together for the Red Wings, who are getting huge results from their big stars. Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen have produced six goals and 11 assists with a combined plus-10 rating over the last three games.

Even the bottom-six forwards have chipped in lately, scoring three big goals, including Jordin Tootoo’s game-winner against the Kings on Wednesday.

“Our top lines have been playing great and getting big goals,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “But anytime you can get depth scoring, it just helps so much, gives you an even broader attack. I think all four lines are playing really well.”

Since the Easter Sunday massacre – when Chicago rolled the Red Wings 7-1 – the defense has been much improved, holding opponents to two or fewer goals in 10 of 12 games this month.

“It's been better, no doubt,” said Kronwall, who has five assists with a plus-3 rating in the last dozen games. “We’ve done a good job of keeping teams to the outside. When we needed it Howie again has come up big for us.”

There’s no question, this has been a rough – if not agonizing – season.

But get into the playoffs with a win Saturday, and everything else will be forgotten.

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose

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