It has been six seasons since the Detroit Red Wings participated in the NHL playoffs. Prior to that, Detroit had 25 consecutive appearances in the postseason, which gave fans a bit of everything from disappointing first-round exits to six appearances in the Stanley Cup Final, resulting in four championships. As the team continues to rebuild, here is a look back at their last playoff appearance in 2016.
2015-16 Season Review
Heading into the 2015-16 season, there was a breath of fresh air surrounding the Red Wings. Mike Babcock was the head coach for 10 seasons in Detroit before he stepped down for a new challenge in Toronto. Under Babcock, the Red Wings made two appearances in the Stanley Cup Final, winning the Stanley Cup in 2008. With consecutive disappointing first-round playoff exits in 2014 and 2015, Babcock’s departure wasn’t exactly contested by Red Wings management led by general manager Ken Holland, who was also eager for a new voice behind the bench.
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The Red Wings turned to Jeff Blashill, who had success in the organization coaching the Grand Rapids Griffins for three seasons, including a Calder Cup championship in 2013. He also was a part of Babcock’s staff on the Red Wings during the 2011-12 season and worked with and developed with many of the players on the roster. He inherited a roster blended with veterans Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and Niklas Kronwall and a mix of talented young prospects led by 2014 first-round draft pick Dylan Larkin, Tomas Tatar, Andreas Athanasiou, and promising goalie Petr Mrazek.
Detroit finished third in the Atlantic Division with a 41-30-11 record during the 2015-16 season. They were led in scoring by their captain, Zetterberg, with 50 points (13 goals and 37 assists), while Datsyuk was just one point behind (16 goals and 33 assists) in just 66 games played after returning from offseason ankle surgery. The leading goal scorer that season was rookie Dylan Larkin, who posted 23 to go along with 22 assists while playing in 80 games during a fantastic season where he also set the fastest skater record during the NHL All-Star Skills Competition held in Nashville.
Another First-Round Playoff Exit
The Red Wings found themselves matched once again with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the 2016 playoffs. The previous year, Detroit lost a disappointing seven-game series to the Lightning after being up 3-2 in the series before dropping the final two games. Under the direction of Tampa Bay’s general manager, Steve Yzerman, the Lightning were coming off a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks 4-2.
The Lightning would go on once again to knock out the Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs, this time needing just five games. While all the games were close, the franchises were moving in completely different directions. The Lightning was rising and becoming Stanley Cup contenders, while the Red Wings were at the end of a magnificent 25-year run. Here is a synopsis of how the five-game series went.
Game 1 – April 13, 2016, at Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay 3 – Detroit 2
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Alex Kilorn scored 8:52 into the third period, which proved to be the difference in the game. Nikita Kucherov scored twice, and Ben Bishop made 34 saves. Red Wings had an opportunity to tie the game in the final minute, but defenseman Mike Green’s shot went over the net as he controlled a loose puck in front of the Lightning net. Jimmy Howard made 31 saves in the loss.
Game 2 – April 15, 2016, at Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay 5 – Detroit 2
The game was tied at two when Brad Richards scored at 4:27 of the third period. Tampa Bay scored three unanswered goals, with two by Tyler Johnson, who recorded a four-point game. Through the first two games, Detroit had no answer for the line of Johnson, Alex Killorn, and Nikita Kucherov, who combined for 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in the first two games. Larkin scored his first playoff goal (and only one to date) in the second period that tied the game at 1-1.
Game 3 – April 17, 2016, at Detroit
Detroit 2 – Tampa Bay 0
After Howard allowed seven goals on 64 shots in the first two games of the series, Detroit turned to Mrazek, who recorded a 16-save shutout in a Red Wings victory. Goals by Athanasiou and Zetterberg scored 4:40 apart from each other in the second period proved to be enough in an inspired effort by Detroit on home ice.
Game 4 – April 19, 2016, at Detroit
Tampa Bay 3 – Detroit 2
Tampa Bay scored all of their goals with the man advantage, including the eventual game-winner by Ondrej Palat with 2:59 minutes remaining in the third period. Detroit was 0-4 with the man advantage in this game and struggled all series, going 1-for-21 through the first four games of the series.
Game 5 – April 21, 2016, at Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay 1 – Detroit 0
It was a tightly contested game until Killorn’s goal with 1:43 remaining in the third period was enough for a Tampa Bay series-clinching win that sent the Lightning on to the second round. Bishop made 34 saves for his fourth career shutout in the playoffs. Special teams once again failed the Red Wings, who went 0-4 on the power play, resulting in just one goal in 25 attempts during the five-game series.
A 25-year Playoff Streak Ends
The next season, the Red Wings were eliminated from playoff contention officially on March 28, 2017. That spring would be the first season since 1990 that there would be no octopus flying on the ice after a playoff goal. “No one’s ever happy when you don’t make the playoffs,” said senior vice president Jimmy Devellano, who has been with the Red Wings since the late Mike Ilitch bought the team in 1982. “But as I told our people, we’ve got a lot of company. Sixteen make it. Fourteen don’t make it. We’ve given the fans wonderful hockey for a quarter of a century.”
After the 2016 Playoffs, the Red Wings would go on a downward spiral and finally realize a full rebuild would be necessary. Cornerstone players such as Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and Kronwall would soon retire, and the keys to the franchise would be turned over to Steve Yzerman, who was named to be executive vice president and general manager in 2019.
The NHL playoffs bring postseason memories that last a lifetime. Whether it’s Game 7 nerves, knowing that any given shot in overtime can end the game or series, or simply complaining about the officiating, all of these emotions are what make for great theater, win or lose, for many fan bases. Red Wings fans are hoping the current rebuild under Yzerman will help the franchise get back in the playoffs after a current stretch of too many long summers has passed by.
Rob Klein grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan playing pond hockey every winter, and watching Hockey Night in Canada on CBC every Saturday. Being able to finally watch his Red Wings hoist the Stanley Cup in 1997 was his finest NHL moment. As a fan of the NHL for over 40 years he has been able to follow many great teams and appreciate the history of this great game as well as the remarkable talent that is playing today.