The Detroit Red Wings have been just barely holding on to one of the most impressive streaks in American sports history for a while now.
The upcoming slate, and this weekend in particular, could finally snap it for good.
It’s been a long time since captain Steve Yzerman was leading the franchise to Stanley Cups, but the 25-year playoff streak remains a link to those times of glory.
Detroit is currently five points out of the final Eastern Conference wildcard spot and six points out of the third and final Atlantic Division spot with several teams to jump to get there. Just 29 games remain on the schedule heading into Thursday night.
The team also has a horrific stretch starting Thursday at Washington, then continuing Saturday at Columbus and wrapping Sunday at Minnesota — that’s the NHL’s three best teams.
It doesn’t get much better after the trip, as the Red Wings then return to Joe Louis Arena to play St. Louis, the NHL-leading Caps again and then travel to play at the Stanley Cup champions in Pittsburgh. Another five-game road trip comes shortly after that.
Complicating matters is the upcoming March 1 trade deadline, where general manager Ken Holland could be forced to make a hard decision on the team’s present in order to benefit its future.
The team is nearly up against next year’s salary cap already with committed contracts, and that’s without re-signing impending free agents such as defenseman Brendan Smith and forward Thomas Vanek.
To shed salary and acquire picks, the team might have to dangle those players in addition to young assets such as Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist.
Making matters worse, goaltender Jimmy Howard suffered a setback in a conditioning assignment on Wednesday night with minor-league Grand Rapids, according to the Detroit Free Press.
If he could return and show good form before the deadline, he could be sold off to a contending team in need of goaltending insurance.
These probably are not the scenarios Holland envisioned this winter in the final season at the Joe, which has been the scene of so much winning over the past few decades.
But it’s reality and, unless the franchise has one more drive to the playoffs left in it, it better start the rebuilding process now.