This isn’t the same Detroit Red Wings team that won four Stanley Cups from 1997-2008.
It isn’t even the same team that started this lockout-shortened season.
When Nick Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom retired and Henrik Zetterberg assumed the captaincy, it was clear that the Wings would go through a transition period.
Unlike some other teams that went through very lean periods with no playoff appearances and got some high draft picks as a result, the Wings have made the playoffs 22 straight seasons.
Although Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk led the way in the Wings’ 3-2 Game 7 victory over and elimination of the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday at Honda Center, they wouldn’t be in this position without their young players.
Specifically, the development of their young players.
On defense, Jakub Kindl finally showed consistency, and Danny DeKeyser was a miracle when he signed as a free agent out of Western Michigan at the end of March.
“We just have been getting better and better,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “We wouldn’t have made the playoffs if we didn’t have Dan DeKeyser. He kind of settled us down and then we lost him, and it took us a little bit to get organized again.
“But (Jonathan Ericsson) and (Niklas Kronwall) are good every night for us, just steadying the rest of the group. And as they get more comfortable and more confident in themselves, they’re better.”
Joakim Andersson joined the team because of injuries and never left. Gustav Nyquist finally stuck and showed off the skill he’d displayed in the AHL with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Damien Brunner stepped right into the NHL from the Swiss Elite League and contributed immediately.
“Without the growth of Andersson, Brunner and Nyquist, we couldn’t beat this team (Anaheim), and early in the year, we didn’t have that,” Babcock said. “So the growth of those guys allowed us to match up.
“Even on the road here, (Nick) Bonino and that group couldn’t eat them up, whereas earlier in the year, we didn’t have a matchup or an answer for those guys.”
Zetterberg said the fact that the Wings needed to fight the last week of the regular season just to get into the playoffs helped those young players get ready for the postseason.
“I think those last four games really helped our team,” Zetterberg said. “A lot of guys haven’t been in playoff situations before.
“It was nice we almost got a series before the postseason started. It was nice to see we could win the first one.”
Brunner, who had the overtime game-winning goal in Game 4, said emotions weren’t a problem before the game.
“You try to keep it down and just try to play the same game you did all series,” Brunner said. “Special being in a Game 7 and winning. It’s, obviously, even better.”
Young veteran players also showed improvement. Justin Abdelkader, 26, earned a spot playing alongside Zetterberg and Datsyuk, and Abdelkader’s presence was missed during his two-game suspension earlier in the series.
But in Game 7, Abdelkader provided the signature moment when he intercepted a pass and broke in on Anaheim goaltender Jonas Hiller, scoring a shorthanded goal to make it 2-1 late in the first period.
“I was just trying to make a good play and get a good shot off, whether it was a shot or a deke,” Abdelkader said. “I was going to shoot it at first, but decided to deke and the five-hole opened up. That’s where I wanted to go.”
Valterri Filppula, 29, didn’t follow up a strong 2011-12 season with another solid regular season, perhaps because he injured his knee playing in Finland during the lockout. But he provided the series-winner in the second period of Game 7.
Filppula has one goal and five assists in five career Game 7s.
The Wings have grown as a team this season and now get a shot at the loaded Chicago Blackhawks.
And the Wings like their chances a lot more now than they did a couple of months ago.
“We got a whole bunch of kids on our team,” Babcock said. “Anytime you get to play a seven-game series and you play a lot of overtime, to me, that’s what it’s all about.
“It’s about being mentally tough. That’s what playoff hockey is.”