Gave: Happy New Year indeed for Wings, fans

With Jimmy Howard, 30, rebounding to play the best hockey of his career, it looks like a happy new year, indeed.

Rick Osentoski

One year ago today, the Red Wings lost the Winter Classic in front of an NHL attendance record 105,491 fans at Michigan Stadium — after a shootout, an event that seemed to foreshadow a common theme throughout 2014.

But Detroit’s difficulties with the shootout, especially since the start of this season, is about the only blemish in an otherwise outstanding year for Wings fans and their hockey club. They had a lot to cheer about, watching the Wings overcome monumental adversity and not only make the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive year but accomplish something far more improbable: Changing on the fly, they managed to get a lot younger, faster — and better.

Maybe a lot better, by the looks of the way they closed 2014.

But back to the beginning, for a moment. A lesser team in the midst of losing a franchise record 421 man games to injuries would have fallen right off the NHL cliff. Their two superstars, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, played just 45 games each. Darren Helm played only 42, Jonathan Ericsson just 48 and Johan Franzen only 54. They were among six players who missed at least 25 games. Fifteen other players missed 10 or more games.

Enter a new generation of Wings who played far more significant roles than anyone might have predicted. Gustav Nyquist put the team on his back, scoring goals at a remarkable pace — 23 goals in one 28-game stretch — like he’d done at every level of his career. Forwards Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan, Luke Glendening and defenseman Brendan Smith all stepped into regular duty and distinguished themselves as NHL players. These guys were logging 18-minutes plus on a lot of nights, in crucial games.

With the youngsters forming a new nucleus, the Wings the Wings managed to play .500 hockey from New Year’s Day through the end of the season to finish with 93 points and secure a wildcard playoff berth and extend a franchise record.

This was where Mike Babcock showed he’s worth whatever it costs to keep him in Detroit as the highest-paid coach in the game. That was the finest coaching we’ve seen in the NHL in many years, and the most impressive in Detroit since Jacques Demers took a team that had just 40 points the year before to two consecutive final-four playoff appearances in 1987-88.

A year ago on Jan. 1, the Wings were 18-14-10, four games above .500 with the hardest part of the schedule — which would be interrupted by the Olympic Winter Games — ahead of them. Today they again face the most difficult part of their schedule, playing away from Joe Louis Arena for most of the next two months. Yet they are 11 games above .500 at 20-9-9 and stand just three points behind Tampa Bay for the Eastern Conference lead.

But the giant leap forward this team has taken since a year ago goes beyond kids, coaching and staying healthy. While superstars Datsyuk and Zetterberg continue to show they can carry this team for stretches as long as they stay healthy, it’s unreasonable to expect them to do it night after night. And the youngsters are still learning how to survive and thrive through a grueling 82-game NHL schedule. In fact, this protracted road adventure through January and February will tell us much about this team.

Perhaps the biggest, and certainly the most overlooked, factors in the marked improvement of this club has been the emergence of some middle-aged guys who have become impact players in various roles.

— Justin Abdelkader, 27, has become a top-line forward, playing comfortably on the wing with Zetterberg and Datsyuk, digging the puck out of the corners and providing a much-needed net-front presence that has been missing since Tomas Holmstrom retired. He was having a career year on the offensive end until suffering an upper body injury that slowed his pace.

— Darren Helm, 27, provides the kind of speed at center or on the wing that most teams cannot match. And if he can continue to develop a finishing touch that he showed with two goals in a 3-1 New Year’s Eve win against visiting New Jersey, watch out.

— Drew Miller, 30, has been a rock on the wing of a checking line with Glendening, taking a lot of pressure off Datsyuk and Zetterberg by killing penalties and matching up favorably against other teams’ top lines.

And with Jimmy Howard, 30, rebounding to play the best hockey of his career, it looks like a happy new year, indeed.

In fact, we just might be seeing the start of something very special with these Red Wings at the dawn of 2015.