It was last July that Daniel Alfredsson threw a bit of a haymaker at the NHL by leaving Ottawa after 17 seasons and signing as an unrestricted free agent with the Detroit Red Wings.
At age 41, Alfredsson wanted one more shot at a Stanley Cup, saw a team featuring Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and figured the Wings would give him as good a shot as any.
For so long, it appeared as if the right wing had picked poorly. Datsyuk and Zetterberg missed large chunks of the season with injuries, and the Wings hardly looked the part for Lord Stanley’s playoffs.
Remember that stretch ending in late December when the Wings dropped eight straight games and 15 out of 18 at home? Good grief.
More recently, they’ve worked up a little head of steam, and despite a shootout loss in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, they got the one point they needed to clinch a playoff berth.
One of the more remarkable streaks in professional sports is alive and well. The Wings will bring the postseason to Hockeytown for a 23rd consecutive year. If I counted correctly, there are 13 NHL franchises that either haven’t been around or haven’t been in their current location for 23 seasons.
One of those relative newcomers, the Columbus Blue Jackets, is in the playoffs for the second time in franchise history. Yet to be sorted out with just a couple regular-season games to go is whether Detroit can outlast the Jackets for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, determining opening-round pairings against either Boston or Pittsburgh.
Either way, it figures the Red Wings will be underdogs, although in playoff hockey seeds probably mean less than in any other sport, give or take the 2014 NCAA men’s basketball journey. It’s all about momentum.
As Detroit coach Mike Babcock said, “Whoever we get, we’re going to be a tough out.”
Datsyuk is back from a knee injury and rounding into can’t-catch-me form, but today’s game at Joe Louis Arena against Carolina will be just the center’s sixth NHL contest since Jan. 1.
Zetterberg, a left wing, is still on injured reserve after surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back in late February, but may be on skates within a couple days. It’s doubtful he could be ready for any first-round games.
Ditto for veteran center Stephen Weiss, who underwent sports hernia surgery in January and is unlikely to return regardless of round.
Alfredsson will nonetheless get his Cup shot, thanks to some young players who this time a year ago were concentrating on winning a different cup — the Calder — for Grand Rapids of the AHL.
Center Riley Sheahan, right wing Tomas Jurco, and left wing Gustav Nyquist, in fact, started this season with Grand Rapids before riding to the Wings’ rescue.
Mix in Tomas Tatar, another 20-something left wing who had seen some action with the Wings in each of the previous two seasons, and you have a team playing its best hockey of the season.
“Our team is way better than it was at the start of the year because we’ve got so many kids,” Babcock said. “They’ve won jobs, and they’re going to keep their jobs.
“They’re not going anywhere. … They’re going to be a part of us for a long time.”
They are the future, but the present too.
Alfredsson is counting on it.
“We’re going to try to finish off strong,” he vowed.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.
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