With just a few games remaining in the regular season, the Detroit Red Wings are in a dogfight just to make the playoffs. Maybe they will -- and maybe they won't.
If they do -- even as a lowly #8 seed in the playoffs -- one never knows what might happen. Indeed, last year, the LA Kings barely squeaked into the postseason in much the same scenario, and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
If they don't -- then hey -- the Wings have made it to the playoffs for the last 21 straight years, the longest such streak in all of pro sports. That's pretty impressive stuff. Whether it's this year or not, there will come a time when the Wings don't make the playoffs, because all streaks eventually must end (not counting death, taxes, and the Lions not winning the Super Bowl, of course).
Though Red Wings' owner Mike Ilitch was no doubt a vast improvement over the reigns of his predecessors, much of the credit for the Wings' successful run rightfully belongs to GM Ken Holland. Since 1997, when he came on board, Holland has been absolutely masterful at player procurement, one way or the other, juggling salaries under a reduced salary cap, while seemingly keeping the players satisfied, and basically providing the coaching staff with enough potential talent to make anything possible -- if it came together right.
Sure, the players ultimately play the games, and how they perform determines the outcomes. But during Holland's tenure the Wings have won 3 Stanley Cups, and racked up more wins than any other NHL team since 1997. Not too shabby for a goalie that was drafted in the 12th round by the Maple Leafs in 1975, and played a grand total of 4 NHL games (one for Hartford and 3 for Detroit) before he recognized his true calling.
That was to trade in his skates, union card and seldom worn jerseys for dress shoes, a management position, and a suit. Needless to say, this appears to have been a very prudent career decision -- not only for Holland himself, but more importantly for the Red Wings and their fans as well. Holland has done a fabulous job. Unlike his counterpart Joe Dumars of the Detroit Pistons, Holland has certainly earned a "pass" for a couple years if and when the Red Wings fail to make the playoffs.
Still, as this season winds down, it's up to the players to win games and get the team into the playoffs. For now, there's nothing Holland can do about it. For that matter, head coach Mike Babcock can juggle his lines and defensive pairs here and there, but it still comes down to the players scoring more goals than the teams they face. Period.
At that, hockey is more of a crap shoot game than other team sports. A lot more luck is involved. Consider slap shots that are deflected by bodies, skates, or sticks. They can wind up anywhere, including in the net. A "hot goalie" has always been a misleading term. Sure, that typically means the goaltender is playing out of his mind flopping around with his arms and legs making save after save. Yet the truth really is -- he's just on a lucky streak. When an opposing player snaps a shot at the goal from inside 10 feet, the goalie will typically throw his glove hand up in one direction, and his stick/blocker in the other. He doesn't know where that shot is headed and can't possibly react that fast to make a physically calculated save. If he catches it or blocks it -- it was purely luck. If one of them is fortunate enough to get "on a roll" like that for a few games in a row -- presto -- you have a "hot" goalie. But down deep, I suspect they know better. Remember, there are times when it is said "the goalie didn't have a chance" on some such pucks that wind up in the net behind him. Bull. Of course he had a chance. He just guessed wrong with his arms and legs flailing about. It works both ways.
Nevertheless, in the bigger picture right now the Red Wings are about average in the whole scheme of the NHL. They could make the playoffs and conceivably win the Stanley Cup. It's possible.
Or they could miss the playoffs after 21 straight years. That would be a shame, but it also wouldn't exactly be the end of the world. It might deprive Mike Ilitch of several million bucks in playoff revenue, but he can afford it.
Here's hoping all the bounces and deflections go the Wings' way in their last few games, and well into the playoffs. May the force be with them.
But if it turns out the other way -- it's really not that big of a deal.