Red Wings’ Playoff Race Still a Long Shot

The Hockey Writers

The Detroit Red Wings are currently one of the hottest teams in the NHL, with six wins in their last seven games. This run of great play has launched Detroit back into the playoff picture and they currently hold the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference when sorted by points percentage. There’s no doubt that the last week or two have been some of the most fun weeks of Red Wings hockey over the better part of the last decade, and I truly hope it continues for as long as possible.

Ville Husso Detroit Red Wings
Ville Husso, Detroit Red Wings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Now here’s where I get to the part you won’t like. Detroit is not a playoff team yet.

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I don’t say this to be a contrarian, for clickbait or because I want to tell people how to enjoy watching hockey (by all means, enjoy this run, I sure have been), but to remind you to temper your expectations a bit as the Red Wings head into the final third of the season. If Detroit ends up making the playoffs this year, please feel free to chirp me about it on Twitter (I’m sure some of you would anyway), but I don’t quite believe how good they’ve looked on this run and I don’t think they’ll be able to sustain it for long enough to make the playoffs. Allow me to explain.

A Look at the Numbers

Over their recent seven-game stretch that saw the Red Wings go from the top 10 of draft lottery odds to a real contender for a wild card spot, Detroit has been a very bad team at five-on-five. There’s no sugarcoating it, the numbers are bad. Their Corsi For Percentage (the percentage of shot attempts each game that were taken by Detroit) at five-on-five is an abysmal 37.18% over the last seven games which is below the season averages of both the Anaheim Ducks and the Columbus Blue Jackets (stats via. Natural Stat Trick) who are currently sitting at 32nd at 31st overall in the NHL respectively.

Detroit has been outshot by a total of 67 at five-on-five in just a seven-game span (121 shots for compared to 187 shots against), and were outshot 29-7 at five-on-five in their 2-1 win over the Calgary Flames. Finally, the Red Wings’ expected goals for percentage (xGF%) during this period is just 41.91% indicating that they have given up significantly more valuable scoring chances despite earning 12 of a possible 14 points in the standings.

Dylan Larkin Detroit Red Wings
Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

How does a team win six of seven while being so thoroughly outplayed at five-on-five? Special teams and goaltending is how. Detroit’s power play has scored on eight of their last 23 opportunities for a 34.8% success rate (season-long rate is 21.4%), and their penalty kill has been humming along at 85% (season-long rate is 77.8%). These numbers are significantly better than the team has managed over the course of the season and their power play especially will not be able to keep this up for any extended amount of time.

Detroit has also received some world-class goaltending during this run, with Ville Husso and Magnus Hellberg combining for a .947 SV% and 5.6 goals saved above expected (GSAx). Husso’s save percentage this year currently stands at .904 which doesn’t quite tell the full story of his hot start to the year and his subsequent rough patch that lasted until, well, the last two weeks or so. While I believe Husso is quite a bit better than a .904 goalie, I also don’t think he’ll manage a save percentage in the .940s for the entire rest of the season.

I’m not saying this to take away from  the success of Detroit’s special teams and goaltending, but rather because they won’t always be able to steal wins like they have been of late. The majority of the game is played at even strength and having the lion’s share of shots and scoring chances at even strength typically bodes well for a team’s overall success. It’s reasonable for a team to have good special teams play and goaltending that can paper over a slightly weaker even strength game (look at last year’s New York Rangers), but a team playing at such a low level five-on-five can only be buoyed for so long.

A Look at Detroit’s Competition

There’s a very real path for Detroit to sneak into the playoffs this year with Husso staying hot, Dylan Larkin maintaining his star-level production, and the Jake Walman – Moritz Seider defensive pair continuing to dominate on both ends of the ice. This path also requires that some of the NHL’s most dysfunctional teams remain disfunctional for the rest of the year such as the Florida Panthers going from winning the 2022 President’s Trophy to missing out on the playoffs entirely. 

Moritz Seider Detroit Red Wings
Moritz Seider, Detroit Red Wings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The top three teams in both the Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions have all but guaranteed their playoff spots meaning that the remaining seven teams that are in striking distance of the wild card spots are all competing for just two spots in the standings. Each of the Panthers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, and New York Islanders appear to be “over-the-hill”, so to speak, and could very well continue to collapse, leaving an opportunity for Detroit to swoop in and snag a playoff spot. 

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However, I think the more likely result is that one of those four teams sorts themselves out and earns a playoff spot on merit while another makes enough trades at the deadline to put them over the edge since each of those teams have a much stronger incentive to make the playoffs this year with their contending windows ready to slam shut at any moment. These teams are also much more likely to make a big splash involving a future first round pick or one of their top prospects than Detroit is.

Simply Being in the Playoff Race is Good News

The fact that Detroit is even relevant in late February is wonderful and is a great example of how far this team has come. Detroit is on pace for 91 points this year which would be an absolutely massive step up from the 74 points they managed last season, a concrete example that their spending spree in last summer’s free agency was worth it and that their prospect pool can translate to NHL success. 

Tyler Bertuzzi Detroit Red Wings
Tyler Bertuzzi, Detroit Red Wings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

I’m still not sold that Detroit is a legitimate playoff team this year when considering the unsustainable success of their goaltenders and special teams over the last two weeks, but I’d no longer be shocked if they made the playoffs which is an exciting step. The wild card contenders in the East are looking vulnerable and the Red Wings would be more than happy to steal a spot and make the postseason for the first time since 2016, setting themselves up for a first round series against *checks the NHL standings* either the Boston Bruins or the Carolina Hurricanes. Hmm, sounds like fun, sign me up!

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