DETROIT - This week, there are few things as sweet as the number 23 in Hockeytown.
The Red Wings entered a two-game road trip Tuesday in need of three points to extend their playoff streak to 23 straight seasons, and that’s exactly what they got.
“That’s what you play for, to get into the playoffs,” said veteran forward Daniel Alfredsson. “I played a long time in this league, played a lot of playoff games but haven’t won the Stanley Cup. That’s what you dream about. That’s the only reason I’m still playing, I guess.”
The Red Wings earned two points in Buffalo on Tuesday before traveling to Pittsburgh Wednesday for what could have been a precursor to a first-round playoff series. Although Detroit fell to the Penguins in a shootout, the team earned the one magical point it needed to clinch a playoff berth.
“I was a bit sour coming in here losing the game but when the guys said we made the playoffs I kind of remembered we only needed one point,” said goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, who made 21 saves in the shootout loss to Pittsburgh. “That was a good feeling at least but we got to keep pushing. We can’t just stop now because we’re in the playoffs and be ready when it starts.”
But coach Mike Babcock doesn’t expect the postseason berth to give the Wings any mental relief as they conclude the regular season over the next three days, only because he doesn’t believe there was any stress to begin with.
“I don’t know about that,” said Babcock. “I don’t think our group has been stressed out or anything like that. I think our group has played hard and had fun doing it. We’ve gotten better. We need to continue to play well.”
The reason why the club has done each of the aforementioned things is no secret.
The Wings dressed 13 players from the Grand Rapids Griffins’ 2013 Calder Cup championship team this season, earning Detroit the nickname the “Red Griffins” for good reason. The youngsters filled voids for the injury-stricken Wings, who have racked up 401 man games lost, 21 of which were played without both captain Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.
Babcock didn’t hesitate when asked if it was safe to say the young players saved Detroit’s season.
“For sure, no question,” Babock said. “We couldn’t have done it without them. They came here and took jobs, they didn’t just …they’re not going anywhere. They’re real good players that keep getting better and will be part of us for a long time.”
To show just how young the club’s roster has been this season, 11 players who appeared in at least one game with the Wings weren’t even born the last time Detroit missed the playoffs, including Petr Mrazek (22), Xavier Ouellet (20), Alexey Marchenko (22), Teemu Pulkkinen (22), Mitch Callahan (22), Landon Ferraro (22), Adam Almquist (23), Tomas Tatar (23), Tomas Jurco (21), Brian Lashoff (23), and Riley Sheahan (22), who scored the game-tying goal Wednesday to help Detroit secure a playoff spot.
“It’s unbelievable to help the team any way we can and there’s all of this talk about the young guys being helpful here but you have to give a lot of credit to the older guys for showing us the ropes and playing with leadership, so it’s been a lot of fun,” Sheahan said.
The Wings' 23-year streak still is just the fifth-longest in NHL history. Boston has the record at 29 seasons from 1967-68 to 1995-96. The San Jose Sharks have the next-longest active NHL streak at 10 straight appearances, including this season. The San Antonio Spurs have the next-longest current streak in the four major sports. It's at 17 seasons, including this season.
The eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference have now been settled with Detroit and Columbus both claiming the final two spots Wednesday. By the Red Wings picking up a point and the Blue Jackets winning in Dallas, the Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils were eliminated. Columbus and Detroit are tied with 91 points, but the Jackets hold the tie-breaker that would give them the first wild-card.
“I like the way we’re playing,” said Alfredsson. “We’re going to play Pittsburgh or Boston, two very strong teams, but we’re playing well; I don’t think we’ll go in and be the favorites but we’re going to keep doing what we’ve done all year and that’s go out there and give it everything we have.”
Follow Andrea Nelson on Twitter @Nelson_Andrea