PITTSBURGH, Pa. – When Daniel Alfredsson pulled off the stunner of the NHL off-season by leaving the Ottawa Senators as a free agent, the rationale he gave was simple: He thought the Detroit Red Wings offered him a better chance to win the Stanley Cup.
At the time, skeptics looked at the Senators and questioned if that was true. They had just overcome injuries to Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson to reach the second round of the playoffs, and even Alfredsson saw a bright future ahead.
Playing into his 40s, Alfredsson just didn’t “have the time to wait for that.” As a disappointing season unfolded in Ottawa, it became clear the longtime Senators captain was right, and on Wednesday night the Red Wings validated his decision to sign in Detroit by making the playoffs and giving him another opportunity to chase the Cup.
“That’s what you play for: to get into the playoffs,” Alfredsson said after the Red Wings clinched with a shootout loss in Pittsburgh. “I played a long time in this league, I played a lot of playoff games but I haven’t won the Stanley Cup, and that’s what you dream about. That’s the only reason I’m still playing.”
The easy move, as Alfredsson acknowledged July 5, would’ve been to re-sign with the Senators and play out a career that would then include his No. 11 being raised to the rafters and maybe a statue being built outside Canadian Tire Centre. Leaving immediately clouded his legacy.
In the wake of Alfredsson’s departure, the Senators couldn’t seem to get out of a fog early and were never able to catch up. They missed the playoffs for the third time in six years, but even from afar the former face of that franchise didn’t get any satisfaction in watching the Sens struggle.
“I was hoping that they would do well, there’s no question,” Alfredsson said Tuesday in Buffalo. “Other than that, my focus is solely on this team and on the present and finishing out this season strong.”
Led by Alfredsson and fellow Swede Gustav Nyquist, the Red Wings made a strong push to qualify for the playoffs on the night they played their 80th game of the season. And they did so despite missing stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for almost half the season due to injuries, while Alfredsson, himself, missed 13 games.
Thanks to major contributions from young players like Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, Detroit overcame those and many more injuries to make a 23rd consecutive playoff appearance. The Red Wings also leaned heavily veteran defenceman Niklas Kronwall, Alfredsson and coach Mike Babcock to steady the ship.
“I think there’s a few factors: goaltending’s been consistent for us, I think Kronwall has pulled a really heavy load throughout the year on and off the ice for this team,” Alfredsson said. “And (the) coaching staff, as well, adjusting to the team we have and giving us a chance and a game plan to win every night. They’ve been pushing us hard. It’s been hard-fought to get here, but it feels great.”
A season full of injuries putting a coach in line for a Jack Adams Award — sound familiar? Ottawa’s Paul MacLean won it last year, and Babcock will be a serious candidate given how many Red Wings regulars missed time this season.
Of course someone has to score to make that happen. Alfredsson’s 49 points on 18 goals and 31 assists have him tied with Kronwall for the team lead with two games left.
Alfredsson was all smiles in the visiting locker room Wednesday night after helping Detroit pick up the one point it needed to make it. And while clinching a playoff spot was a proud accomplishment, he didn’t deny doubts crept in when the Red Wings learned Datsyuk and Zetterberg would be out for a while.
“We knew it was going to be tough,” Alfredsson said. “We had a similar situation in Ottawa last year where we lost Spezza, Karlsson, (Milan) Michalek and Anderson for longer periods of time.
“If you get something going and you get a good feeling within a locker-room, you can accomplish a lot of things, and I think that’s what we’ve done. We’re a good group, we have fun and we know how to work for each other. It’s kind of contagious when you see everybody going. Everybody kind of drags along and knows that they have to pull their share, as well.”
Taking a step back from the situations, Alfredsson didn’t see much more of a correlation between the triumphs of the 2013 Senators and the 2013-14 Red Wings. In his estimation, this year was worse.
“I think in Ottawa it was more right away we knew a few guys were out for longer periods of time,” he said. “It wasn’t as much guys coming back, guys coming out. We’ve been shuffling lines for most of the year but still found ways to get everybody contributing.”
Alfredsson was one of 34 skaters to dress for the Red Wings this season, second only to the Penguins (37) among playoff teams. Beyond Nyquist and Tatar, Detroit likely wouldn’t have extended its NHL-best playoff streak were it not for minor-league call-ups Riley Sheahan, Luke Glendening and Tomas Jurco.
The kids — a couple of whom weren’t even alive the last time the Red Wings missed the playoffs — are all right in Alfredsson’s eyes. But he also believes Babcock and his staff deserve some credit.
“They gave them that chance and didn’t make it a big deal,” Alfredsson said. “It’s just, ‘You can do this.’ I think that gave them confidence. They definitely made the most of it. I think Coach gave them a chance, and they repaid him with solid play.”
Anything less than solid play would’ve meant an early summer for the Red Wings and a quicker start to the retirement questions for Alfredsson. Instead, the 41-year-old winger gets to compete in the playoffs for the 15th time in his NHL career.
This time is extra special because of how difficult it was.
“I think we worked extremely hard to get to this point, and it feels great,” Alfredsson said. “This group has overcome a lot of adversity and that makes it even more fun.”
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