As the Detroit Red Wings resume their 2013-14 season, the remaining schedule looks more like a sprint than a marathon.
The Red Wings' return to action is highlighted by back-to-back games on the road Wednesday and Thursday (at Montreal and Ottawa, respectively), followed by a March schedule that will see them play 15 games in 26 days.
With just a fingernail's grasp on the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Detroit will need something close to a good luck charm to earn enough points over their remaining 24 games to qualify for the postseason.
That good luck charm may just turn out to be the guy behind the bench.
Mike Babcock, fresh off his second straight Olympic gold medal, will need to find a way to motivate a team that remains an odd patchwork of ailing veterans and unproven youngsters to play better and more consistently than they have all season.
If the Red Wings make the playoffs, it will be because they finished the season playing as a team greater than the sum of its parts—that’s a trick only a coach can pull off.
Realistically, the Red Wings will be battling at least five other teams for the final playoff spot in the East.
The Columbus Blue Jackets, Washington Capitals, Ottawa Senators, Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils are all looking up at the Red Wings in the standings. But seeing as how three points represents the widest gap between these teams and Detroit, no one is squinting to get a better view of who’s above them.
On any given night, Detroit will match up against opponents that are, perhaps at best, a wash on talent alone.
If their best player is Pavel Datsyuk, the Capitals can counter with Alex Ovechkin. If Jimmy Howard is the man shutting the door in Detroit, he’ll need to best Carey Price to walk out of the door with two points in his pocket.
Line for line, player for player, the Detroit Red Wings don’t figure to beat anyone they’ll face down the stretch on depth or talent.
While having players like Datsyuk, Johan Franzen and Stephen Weiss returning to the team in good health and in good form is essential to Detroit’s success, it is not sufficient.
People often talk about players putting their teams on their back, players like Henrik Zetterberg. But as Zetterberg will not be able to put a feather—let alone a team—on his surgically repaired back for the rest of the season, the heavy lifting in Detroit will now fall to the Wings' iron-jawed coach.
If the Red Wings need to be better than their opponents to win, the only resource they have to tip the scales is Mike Babcock.
Mike Babcock is arguably the best hockey coach in the world and certainly the best among his NHL peers.
No other coach the Red Wings will face this year will be sporting two gold medals around their neck and a Stanley Cup championship ring on their finger. So, that legacy of excellence must emerge as the only real advantage the Red Wings can exploit in their run to a 23rd straight playoff appearance.
Making the playoffs will require the Red Wings’ best players playing to the top of their ability and others playing outside of their own—that’s a given. But it’s going to be about who steps up, when, how often and in what situation that will determine Detroit’s ultimate success.
The ability to make the right calls relative to the who, when, how and what lies solely in the hands of Mike Babcock. Now’s the time to see how much of that gold-medal finish he can rub off on the Detroit Red Wings.