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Battle for postseason spot a new fight for Red Wings

The home dressing room deep within Joe Louis Arena is as much museum as it is meeting place. Old black and whites of all the greats fill the walls and the adjacent hallways are covered with murals paying homage to one of the NHL's proudest franchises.

Every time the Detroit Red Wings hit the hall en route to the ice, they walk under a sign that reads, "To whom much is given, much is expected."

Expectations are a given in Motown and that's why this season has been so difficult.

The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2008 and were a Game Seven loser in the finals to Pittsburgh last season. They've won more regular-season games and more playoff games than any NHL team the last 15 years but this injury-riddled campaign has been far different.

The Wings are desperately fighting just to make the playoffs -- and to keep alive the longest-running postseason string in pro sports.

"We've got what we've earned," coach Mike Babcock said prior to Saturday's 3-2 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres. "So we have to embrace it and keep trying to be good. For a long time this year, we played very hard for the group we had. Now we have a good enough group. If we continue to play hard, I still think we'll be in."

Saturday's win pushed the Wings one point ahead of Calgary for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West with 14 games left, and they have a key showdown with the Flames tonight in Calgary.

Are the Wings a victim of a hangover from going to back-to-back finals? Hardly. They've lost 289 man games to injury this year (by comparison, the Sabres have lost just 96).

Big names like Johan Franzen, Henrik Zetterberg, Valtteri Filppula, Niklas Kronwall and Tomas Holmstrom have all missed significant time. Franzen returned just before the Olympic break after missing four months following knee surgery.

The lack of a consistent lineup has led to amazingly inconsistent play. If the Wings win tonight, it will be their first three-game winning streak since early December. Saturday's win gave them a 6-2 run in their last eight games -- after they had gone 6-7-6 in their previous 19.

"We're the ones who put ourselves in this situation," said veteran winger Todd Bertuzzi. "There's big-time urgency in here now you don't often see at this time and that should light a little fire under us."

Understand why this is such a foreign feeling in these parts. The Wings' 18 straight playoff trips are six more than any other franchise (the New Jersey Devils and NBA's San Antonio Spurs are next with 12). Last year, the Wings set an NHL record with their ninth straight 100-point season while taking their eighth straight division title.

And the Wings don't just make the playoffs. They've been a top-four seed for 17 straight years and it's resulted in four Cups since 1997.

The Wings' recent improvement is a stark contrast to what went on earlier in the season. They have twice been shut out in back-to-back games but are now averaging 3.75 goals over their last eight. They struggled to kill penalties early in the season but have now escaped 43 of their last 46 disadvantages.

"The penalty killing has been big," Babcock said. "It's gone from red rotten to getting better to a point where we've been really good."

The backdrop to the struggles on the ice is the tough times in Michigan, a state hit hard by the nation's economic downtown. The Joe is no longer an automatic sellout; Saturday's full house was just the 16th in 34 home games this season.

The Wings need a new arena, as their home is a spartan, 1980s rink without lots of bells and whistles. Their lease expires on June 30 and there's talk of renovation or a new downtown facility to mirror the old Olympia Stadium. There's even some chatter about retrofitting the Palace of Auburn Hills for hockey and moving the Red Wings to the suburbs to join the Pistons. That, however, seems pretty unlikely for a franchise that has been in the city since 1926.

While the future is uncertain, the Red Wings keep pressing on. Around here, hockey is a part of life in May and June as it is in the winter. It would seem weird for the Tigers to have all the attention come May.

"We've played good, back-to-back 60-minute games here now," said veteran defenseman Brian Rafalski, whose overtime goal beat the Sabres. "But it means nothing if we don't do it [tonight]. Our focus is our next game. Believe it or not, we can't standings-watch."

"It's not like we're a terrible team," Babcock said. "But when you're used to winning as much as we have . . . Would you like to be battling for the top of the league like we're used to? Absolutely. But that's not the hand we're playing."

***

The Sabres were off Sunday. They'll return to the ice today and then leave town as the NCAA basketball tournament takes over HSBC Arena. The Sabres have four road games this week, starting Tuesday in Atlanta and continuing to Tampa Bay, Florida and Carolina. The next home game isn't until March 24 against Montreal.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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Clipped Wings?

The longest active postseason streaks in the four major team sports:

Seasons / Team / League    

18 Detroit Red Wings NHL

12 New Jersey Devils NHL

12 San Antonio Spurs NBA

9 Dallas Mavericks NBA

8 Detroit Pistons NBA

8 Indianapolis Colts NFL

6 Denver Nuggets NBA

5 Calgary Flames NHL

5 San Jose Sharks NHL    

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