Monday, March 31, 2014

Weekend wrap: Breaking down the Eastern Conference wildcard race

Each Monday, we’ll wrap up three of the biggest stories from the weekend and how they’ll play into the coming week.

The Team We’re All Vaguely Sick Of

So I guess we can just go ahead and pencil the Red Wings in for 23.

That would be 23 consecutive seasons of making the playoffs, of course, the longest active streak in pro sports and one that seemed in mortal danger just a few weeks ago. On March 17, the Wings found themselves three points out and needing to climb past two teams to get into the postseason. What was worse, they were missing their two best players, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, to long-term injuries.

Two weeks later, they’re holding on to one of the East’s wild-card spots. They haven’t exactly done it by catching fire — they’re just 5-3-0 over their last eight — but it’s been enough to pull back into what’s become a turtle derby for the conference’s final two spots.

On Saturday, the Wings went into Toronto to face what should have been a desperate Maple Leafs team and walked out with a 4-2 win. After falling behind 1-0 after one period, Detroit blitzed the Leafs for three goals in the first eight minutes of the second. Toronto pulled back to within one late in the period, but Darren Helm’s hat trick goal midway through the third put a stop to the comeback. The Leafs have now lost eight straight in regulation for the first time since the worst of the Harold Ballard years. They’re a mess, and after this paragraph ends we’re not going to talk about them anymore, because this post is about actual playoff contenders.

The win snapped Detroit’s three-game losing streak and moved it into a tie with Columbus for the two wild-card spots. The Red Wings pulled ahead of the Blue Jackets on Sunday on the strength of a 3-2 win in Tampa, and now sit at 84 points with seven games left to play.

In Datsyuk and Zetterberg’s absence, the biggest story has been Swedish phenom Gustav Nyquist, a 24-year-old winger who had only 40 games under his belt heading into the season and wasn’t even called up to the NHL roster until late November. He’s scored at nearly a point-per-game pace since then, including 11 goals over his last nine games. That included Sunday night’s effort, a goal-of-the-year candidate that saw him shrug off multiple attempted tackles to beat Ben Bishop on a second effort. Even given the inevitable regression from his current 19.6 percent shooting, he seems set to become the latest Red Wing to go from late-round draft pick to first-line fixture.

The Wings probably still need another eight or nine points in their final seven games to wrap up their spot. So sure, we can pencil them in, but let’s also make sure to have an eraser handy. A lot has changed over the last two weeks, and a whole lot more can change over the next two. And that’s especially true if either of the two teams still chasing them can wake up and make a strong push.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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