"A stunning turn of events" wouldn't be too far off the mark to describe the situation the Detroit Red Wings find themselves in as they await a late-season inter-conference matchup with the Minnesota Wild tonight. The team which led the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference at various points of the season now finds itself in the last guaranteed division spot solely because of the games played tiebreaker against the Boston Bruins and only three points up on an Ottawa Senators squad for whom the word "resurgent" may be the understatement of the season. A potential regular season division title has turned into a potential for mid-April tee times.
Take away how we got here for a moment. There's really nothing that can be done about what's happened, so we might as well just look forward. The Red Wings are still in a playoff spot. They're still in a division berth, and even if their hold on it is currently very tenuous. If Boston wins tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs (haha, if) and Detroit fails to take care of business against Minnesota, we're in the second wild card since the Pittsburgh Penguins have 95 points.
So what? Regardless of how the Red Wings have played lately, they're still in the driver's seat. Senators fans aren't exactly breathing easily about potentially overtaking us or Boston. Bruins fans are definitely riding high after Thursday's win, but they know just as well that the job isn't quite finished yet. They're probably the most hopeful and optimistic at this point, followed by Senators fans and then Red Wings fans out of the three. Fan sentiment tends to correlate with how the team is playing, and Detroit hasn't been playing well.
Just look at their records since the Red Wings went on that awesome 4-1-1 road trip to close out February (ah, simpler times):
It tells you what kind of place that Boston and Ottawa were in that making up 11 points for Boston only tied Detroit, and making up 14 points — 14 points! — still leaves Ottawa three points behind both the Red Wings and Bruins. It also highlights the impact of Detroit's putrid stretch run, that it's brought them back down to the position they're in.
But look at this team. This is the team that found itself needing pretty much to win out to make the playoffs in 2013. If you were around these parts at the time, you'll remember that last-week-of-the-season run spawned this amazing post. With a week to go in the season, the outlook looked bleak after losses to Calgary and Vancouver — the latter in a shootout. But they pulled it off, and not only was the playoff streak kept alive, but Detroit also went on a little bit of a run.
Last season had less of a last-minute cram session to make the playoffs, but it still took a shootout loss to Pittsburgh in the third-to-last game of the season before the team could breathe easy on its regular season. The team certainly dealt with the adversity of a well-documented injury plague, but they overcame that and secured a 23rd consecutive playoff berth.
This team has been through this ride before: last week of the regular season, playoffs in doubt. They're arguably in the best position out of the last three seasons to secure a postseason bid, even considering that they've only won five games since the beginning of March. They are still very much in control of their own destiny, and if anyone in that locker room has any doubts about their ability to do it. head coach Mike Babcock and the rest of the veterans on this team can just point to the last two seasons as evidence they can get this thing done.
There will be plenty of time in the offseason to assess exactly how this season went down. Right now, I have every reason to believe that offseason won't be starting until well after April 11.