The Detroit Red Wings were eliminated from the 2013 Stanley Cup conference semifinals by the Chicago Blackhawks in a hard-fought seven game series which stretched into overtime of the final game.
In previous seasons, early playoff elimination would be seen as a setback for the Red Wings, but they can take away some positives from this year’s postseason performance.
It must be remembered the Wings only clinched a playoff berth on the last weekend of the shortened regular season, barely keeping alive their 22-year streak of consecutive playoff appearances.
For the first time in years, they entered the opening round as underdogs, with few observers giving them any chance against the Anaheim Ducks, who finished second overall in the Western Conference, ten points up on the seventh overall Red Wings.
While the Wings still had experienced stars like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen left over from their glory years, there were questions over goaltender Jimmy Howard’s ability to handle playoff stress, while their young defense corps was considered too inexperienced to contain the mighty Ducks offensive punch.
It was the strong performance Howard and his young defense, however, which proved crucial in the Wings seven-game upset of the Ducks.
Still, there weren’t given much chance in the conference semifinals against the powerhouse Blackhawks , runaway winners of the President’s Trophy for the best regular season record, finishing 21 points over the Wings in the standings.
While the Blackhawks manhandled the Wings in the opening game, the underdog Red Wings stunned the ‘Hawks and the hockey world by reeling off three straight wins to push Chicago to the brink of elimination. They countered the high-flying Blackhawks offense with physical defensive play, driving the ‘Hawks best players to distraction .
The Blackhawks, however, are former Stanley Cup champions with many of their best players still in their prime. They regained their poise and rallied back to take the series, exploiting mistakes made by the young Detroit defenders, whose inexperience finally caught up with them as the series ground on.
Considering the Red Wings weren’t supposed to make it as far as they did, their playoff performance was a positive finish to an otherwise average transition year, one which had some observers wondering if the Wings could ever regain their once-dominant form.
Howard finally silenced critics who doubted post-season ability. Young defensemen Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith benefited greatly from the additional responsibilities and ice time received in this year’s playoffs. Promising Danny DeKeyser, who joined the Wings late in the season but was limited to only two playoff games to a broken thumb, provided a tantalizing glimpse of a potential blueline star.
First year forward Damien Brunner proved he could handle the NHL game, while Gustav Nyqvist and Joakim Andersson played well stepping up into larger roles during the playoffs.
Not everything is rosy going forward for the Red Wings. Datsyuk’s future beyond next season remains uncertain. Zetterberg and Franzen have a lot of mileage on them now, and there’s no one yet in their system poised to replace them. Despite their promising defense, they still need another experienced puck-moving blueliner.
Still, considering what they accomplished in the 2013 playoffs, the Red Wings transition period might not be as lengthy or painful as originally believed.