With the Red Wings sitting at the top of the Western conference (along with the Vancouver Canucks), they have the right mix of health and hunger to get deep into the postseason. Couple that with their league-best home record -- including an NHL record 23-game home winning streak -- and a favorable first round matchup, I think that this is the year that the Wings return to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Unfortunately, that was the storylline near the end of February, when the Wings were on top of a brutal Central Division race and staring at the likes of the Dallas Stars, San Jose Sharks or Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. Fast forward one month -- a stretch in which the Wings went 5-9-3 -- and they are now heading to Nashville to face the solid if unspectacular Predators in the first round.
The Wings' skid to the regular season finish line has many fans concerned about whether they are ready to ramp up for yet another playoff run (their 21st consecutive, for the record). After two consecutive 2nd round exits against the San Jose Sharks, there is always the nagging pressure to get back to the Western Conference Finals and beyond.
There are detractors that say that the Wings are... well, pick your excuse. Too old, too banged up, not tough enough, you've heard all the reasons. Are they right? That remains to be seen (and these playoffs still might not even answer those questions).
And then, there are the fans that believe solely in this principle. Peg me into this category.
Admittedly, I have not watched a lot of hockey over the past month and a half. Living out of town + life + excuses, etc. However, I was able to watch the Wings' final regular season game (against the aforementioned Blackhawks), and came away with the impression that this team is simply biding its time, waiting until the playoffs to make their big move.
I'm not saying that the Wings dawdled their way through the final month of the season. First, I don't believe that professional athletes are wired in a way that allows them to simply say "Eh, this game doesn't matter." These guys are hypercompetitive nearly all of the time. It's why they are where they are. That being said, I don't think that there has been a lot of pressure in the Wings' locker room to tighten everything up until now.
Facing a 2-1 deficit in the 3rd period of their last game and with a trip to Los Angeles looming, the Wings stepped their game up in a major way. A game-tying goal just felt inevitable, and it was. Once again, the Wings turned it on when it counted and did what they had to do in order to avoid a cross-continent playoff series.
Does this mean that I think that the Wings will win the Stanley Cup? They sure as hell have an uphill battle against them. Nashville is now more skilled than they have been in playoff series past, and those train whistles are annoying as shit. The Western conference, like usual, is absolutely loaded. The Canucks are no doubt looking to get back to the Finals after losing Game 7 in their own building last season. The New York Rangers look like they will blaze through the Eastern conference and have plenty left in the tank for whoever escapes the gauntlet that is the West.
Still, despite all these obstacles, the Wings are one of the few teams in this league with the skill to beat everyone I have just mentioned. There is a reason that they were once the scenario I laid out at the top of this post: because they were there. They could very well be the team we've seen slop through the past month, or they could be the team that made Joe Louis Arena a living hell for opposing teams for the four months prior to that point. We won't know for at least another couple weeks which team the Red Wings are, but the answers will start to come tomorrow night at 8.