Red Wings’ Playoff Potential on Trial Against Maple Leafs

As you may have heard once or twice by now, it’s kind of a big deal that the Detroit Red Wings are in a playoff spot at this point in the 2022-23 season. You see, upwards of 77.5 percent of teams in a playoff spot at American Thanksgiving will remain in a playoff spot by the time the season is over. That means that 12 of the 16 teams currently in a playoff position are likely to be preparing for their first round opponents five months from now. Of course, that also means that four of the 16 teams will see their playoff hopes slip away between now and the end of the season.

Last season, the Red Wings were a single point outside of the playoff picture at American Thanksgiving. They were 9-9-3 and looked like a team that, while flawed, could hang in the playoff race for most of the season.

“[The Red Wings] had a really good start last year,” head coach Derek Lalonde said. “Not much different than the start we’ve had after 14, 15 games.”

Derek Lalonde Detroit Red Wings
Derek Lalonde, Detroit Red Wings Head Coach (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Then winter came.

From December to the end of January, the Red Wings banked just 21 points over the course of 23 games. Leaving 25 points on the table is not a recipe for success, and by the time the calendar flipped to February, it was clear that Detroit’s standing on Thanksgiving was a mirage.

In their second game after Thanksgiving in the United States, the Red Wings are set to take on one of the two teams that are currently ahead of them in the highly competitive Atlantic Division: the Toronto Maple Leafs. While we may be just a month and a half into the season, this matchup between two Original Six rivals may be the biggest “measuring stick” game so far for a Red Wings team that is trying to prove that they are ready to hang with the big boys.

Red Wings Have Performed Well…for the Most Part

With a record of 11-5-4, the Red Wings are in a much better spot than they were last season. They’re winning games they are supposed to, such as their recent victories over the Arizona Coyotes and the Columbus Blue Jackets. They’ve also been able to hang with the best the NHL has to offer; they are responsible for one of the New Jersey Devils’ four losses on the season, and they shutout a New York Islanders team that is currently second in the Metropolitan Division.

Related: Red Wings Weekly: The Playoff Race Continues

“We’re in that meaningful game spot,” Lalonde said of his team’s standing ahead of Thanksgiving. “It’s early, but it’s all you can ask. I’m not a really big believer in the American Thanksgiving, even though I know the numbers play itself out, but I just think it’s different.

We sat in this spot my last four years in Tampa, and if we were in the same spot, I was very comfortable [with] American Thanksgiving [that[ the Tampa Bay Lightning were going to [make the] playoffs – we were too talented, it’s the reality of 82 games. That’s not [the Red Wings] right now. We’re going to keep hopefully incrementally getting better.”

To Lalonde’s point, the Red Wings haven’t exactly cruised their way to where they are in the standings. There have been ugly losses, including an 8-3 loss on Halloween night against a Buffalo Sabres team that Detroit matches up against after their game against the Maple Leafs. They were also embarrassed on their home ice against the New York Rangers to the tune of an 8-2 loss. These types of losses are what ultimately cost former head coach Jeff Blashill his job, and they are what skeptics will point to when people suggest that the Red Wings are capable of making the playoffs this season.

There is hope in Hockeytown because of where they currently sit in the standings, but a signature win would go a long way towards providing proof that this year’s Red Wings team is different from last season’s group.

Maple Leafs Remain a Powerhouse

Despite completely turning over their goaltending situation, the Maple Leafs remain as one of the premier teams in the Atlantic Division. Their 13-5-5 record puts them five points ahead of the Red Wings (albeit with three extra games played) and their best players continue to show why people can’t seem to write this team off despite their inability to win a playoff series. While the core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander will give Detroit (and any team for that matter) all they can handle up front, Toronto is dealing with a ton of injuries on the back end that should provide an opening for an upstart team like the Red Wings.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Morgan Rielly (the Maple Leafs’ top defender), Jake Muzzin, and TJ Brodie are all missing from Toronto’s blue line, and all three of them were expected to play big minutes for this team at the beginning of the season. Instead, they have had to rely on the veteran leadership of Mark Giordano along with a few newer/younger faces to help keep the team afloat while their blue line is missing as much talent as it is. Considering they are riding a three-game win streak, it seems like what they are doing is working.

Still, this is an Eastern Conference powerhouse that has a blatant weakness right now. Any team hoping to make the playoffs this season needs to be able to exploit those weaknesses. That’s exactly what the Red Wings will aim to do when the two teams meet at Little Caesars Arena Monday night.

Playoff Preview?

If the playoffs began today, the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs would be first round opponents. However, Detroit cannot afford to get ahead of themselves. For them, this isn’t a playoff preview. It’s a test of whether or not they are capable of going toe-to-toe with the best the Atlantic Division has to offer.

In their meeting against the Boston Bruins (the top team in the Atlantic Division), the Red Wings lost 5-1 after an atrocious third period where they allowed three goals within the first five minutes. The Red Wings went blow for blow with them through the first two periods, but all it took was a poor start in the third period and the game was over. While their next game may not be against the Bruins, the Red Wings should view this game against the Maple Leafs as an opportunity to redeem themselves and prove that they aren’t that team that can collapse at any moment.

This game is a four point swing. Will the Red Wings add two points while digging into Toronto’s five point cushion on them? Or will the Maple Leafs win and create further separation between them and their rivals from across the Ambassador Bridge?

If the Red Wings hope to measure up in the Atlantic Division this season, they better hope it’s the former.