- Associated Press - Friday, February 13, 2015

DETROIT (AP) - The latest issue facing the Detroit Red Wings sort of sums up their season so far: Goalie Jimmy Howard is back from a groin injury, but in his absence, Petr Mrazek went 8-2 in 11 starts.

A nice dilemma to have.

After barely making the playoffs the last two seasons, Detroit looks like a threat again to make a deep postseason run. Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Danny DeKeyser aren’t established stars yet, but they’re part of a new wave of talent that has helped Detroit supplement its aging core during a period of transition.

“I think the season’s gone real well,” coach Mike Babcock said. “Just coming into the season, we didn’t know where we’d be. We’ve got a vastly improved group, we’re getting better. We seem to be competitive on most nights.”

The Red Wings are only three points out of first place in the Atlantic Division heading into Saturday night’s game against Winnipeg. In 2013 and 2014, Detroit had to scramble to extend its streak of postseason appearances, but this year it looks like the Red Wings will have no trouble reaching the playoffs for a 24th consecutive season.

The streak has withstood the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom before the 2013 season and back surgery that sidelined Henrik Zetterberg down the stretch last year. At 36, Pavel Datsyuk has been slowed by his own health issues.

With Howard injured, last month’s All-Star game did not include a single Detroit player. The Red Wings are rolling along anyway. They endured a six-game losing streak in December, but four of those defeats were in shootouts. Since then, Detroit has won 14 of 19.

Zetterberg has been healthy this season and tops the team with 48 points, but it’s the 24-year-old Tatar who leads Detroit in goals with 23.

“He’s a passionate kid who loves hockey,” Babcock said. “‘Tats’ has a skill set, and he has a drive to be really good and he’s ultra-competitive, so that adds up to getting better each and every day you’re here, because you’re serious about your craft.”

Detroit has had a hard time luring the game’s most coveted free agents over the last few offseasons, but the Red Wings have developed talent from within. Tatar was a second-round draft pick in 2009. Nyquist, in the midst of his second straight 20-goal season, was a fourth-rounder in 2008.

DeKeyser signed with the Red Wings in 2013 after playing college hockey at Western Michigan. He’s second on the team in ice time, trailing only fellow defenseman Niklas Kronwall.

“It just goes to show you again that this organization does something right,” Kronwall said. “Guys are coming up every year. That’s what we need.”

When Howard went down Jan. 10 at Washington, Mrazek was ready to step in. His exploits since then included a 34-save win over Nashville and a shutout at Colorado. Howard is back, and the question is what role Mrazek will have going forward.

“It’s good to have that depth,” said forward Justin Abdelkader, who has already set a career high with 12 goals this season. “We have that depth all over, whether it’s defense, offense, in net.”

The Red Wings haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 2008, and they haven’t been past the second round of the playoffs since losing in the finals in 2009. That’s part of the reason this season’s team was a bit under the radar back in October, when uncertainty about Babcock’s future - his contract is up after this season - was a major topic.

It’s still not clear where Babcock will be next season, but 2013-14 has only enhanced his reputation as one of the game’s top coaches - and Detroit’s status as one of the NHL’s most stable, steady franchises.

Now the Red Wings will begin the type of stretch run their fans are accustomed to. Barring a major collapse, Detroit will be in the playoffs. It’s just a question of how high a seed the Red Wings can earn.

“I think everybody’s starting to watch the standings every day,” Kronwall said. “Our position might be a little bit different today than it was a year ago or two years ago, but at the same time, you can’t let your foot off the gas.”


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