For 20 minutes on a springlike Sunday, the Detroit Red Wings looked suspiciously like, well, the Detroit Red Wings. They found acres of open ice. They moved the puck with practiced deftness. They looked like, as smiling winger Johan Franzen put it, "ballerinas," albeit ballerinas with really bad attitudes. They pumped four pucks past flummoxed Chicago Blackhawks goalie Cristobal Huet in a span of six minutes and 15 seconds and completed the second-period onslaught with 2.7 seconds left when Pavel Datsyuk slid a breakaway backhander between the pad's of Huet's replacement, Antti Niemi.
"We know we can play that way," captain Nicklas Lidstrom would say later. "That's the way we have to play the majority of the games we have left to make the playoffs. We proved to ourselves we can play [at] that high level and play with the best teams in the league."
Seventeen games remained. And when the sun rose the next morning, Detroit, which had rallied from a two-goal deficit for a frantic 5--4 win, stood eighth in the Western Conference, one point ahead of Calgary for the final playoff spot.
Before a standing-room-only crowd of 22,309 in Chicago and an NBC audience, the Red Wings had given the NHL a glimpse of their fabulous past.
Had they also revealed the future?
Until Sunday, Mike Babcock's necktie probably was doing better than his team. The crimson tie he wore behind the Canadian bench at the Olympic final has its own Facebook page: Mike Babcock's McGill Tie. (It had 1,829 fans as of Sunday.) The McGill University bookstore usually sells two of the ties per month, but all 90 in stock were snapped up within 48 hours of Canada's overtime victory against Team USA. Babcock says he would consider donating his alma mater's newly fashionable neckwear, with its stripes and school crests, to the Hockey Hall of Fame if it inquired, but he officially has retired that particular one.
He had knotted the McGill tie with what appeared to be a half-Windsor. The Red Wings are more of a Gordian knot.
Sometimes the problems seem perplexing for a team that has qualified for 18 straight playoffs, the longest active streak in North American pro sports. (In the past 17 Detroit has been the higher seed in their first-round series.) Now its prospects teeter, its bravado shrivels. The Wings awaken every morning and check the standings, not the melting snow that presages another promising spring. Says defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, himself a ghastly -17: "The confidence we had when we just knew we were going to win even though we didn't play that good ... I don't think that feeling is that strong anymore." Detroit, which has won at least 50 games every season since the 2004--05 lockout but no more than two straight since December, is a bubble team threatening to burst.
Babcock is nettled. It is March 4, 14 hours after the Red Wings had been thumped 6--3 at home by Vancouver—and a day before the start of a two-game run with wins over Nashville and the Blackhawks—and he is underwhelmed with his team at practice. His gravelly baritone echoes through Joe Louis Arena as the Wings work on entering the offensive zone. During one drill defenseman Derek Meech is offsides by two feet. "Meechie," Babcock yells, "no need to be offsides." No overt anger. No sarcasm. Like Detroit's predicament, just fact.
There is overwhelming sentiment that the Wings will make the playoffs—"Genetic memory plus fantastic players," Nashville coach Barry Trotz says—but Babcock broods. "Lots of people on the outside keep saying, 'You'll be fine,'" he says. "But when you're in it, you know [what you're up against]."