Is 63 possible?
The Red Wings won their 40th game of the season, Saturday, coming in just their 54th outing. Their rate of success is phenomenal and has them 17 points ahead of the second-best team in the Western Conference (through Saturday) and 16 points ahead of the second-best team overall. That's tremendous separation when you consider that the deviation between any two teams that are second through 30th in the standings is two points except for a four-point gap between the 28th and 29th place teams.
But even this late into the season and even after seven consecutive victories, the team that the Red Wings cannot shake is the Detroit Red Wings … the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings.
That squad set an NHL record with 62 wins.
This year's squad is dominating the present, but is just able to keep pace with the past.
This year's Red Wings have won their past seven games. Four victories ago, the team caught up with the 1995-96 team's pace. (Early in this season, the Red Wings were ahead of that pace, but a loss in Game 46 finally saw them drop behind.)
Each of the past three victories has matched the strides of the team from a dozen years ago. Both teams had 40-10-4 records through 54 games.
"There are similarities," said Kris Draper, who along with Chris Osgood, Nicklas Lidstrom and Kirk Maltby were members of both the current and 1995-96 Detroit teams. "The come-from-behind victories, finding ways to win hockey games. I think that's something that's the same."
Draper stops talking for a moment and smiles. Draper was just 24 for most of that 62-win season. Maltby and Osgood were 23. Lidstrom was the old man at 25.
"Obviously it was a long time ago, '96," said Draper, who then slips out of conversation and into the interview-speak of the veteran, making sure to praise teammates and maintain humility. "I know the one thing that you think of when you're walking out of the rink is that we didn't necessarily from start to finish outwork a team or deserve to win, but great goaltending gave us every opportunity to win."
That 1995-96 team, however, did something that was historic. Although it wound up losing to Colorado in the Western Conference final, winning Stanley Cups the following two seasons with near identical rosters helped solidify its legacy of greatness.
How often did the Red Wings win a dozen years ago? As dominant as the current Red Wings are, they'll need 22 victories in their final 28 games just to equal that 62-win total.
It's a thought, however, that has a veteran like Osgood yielding to youthful thoughts.
"Let's see what we do in the next 15 games," said Osgood. "It's doable, but it's going to be real difficult just because all the teams are bunched up. Points are so important to them. They're going to be going all out every night. It's going to be tough."
One trait possessed by the current Red Wings that if continued gives them a shot at matching the 62-win mark is the ability to win difficult games.
Three nights ago, the Red Wings won a game turned into shut-down defense-first by Colorado that was scoreless for 57 minutes. In Boston two nights ago, the Bruins clogged the neutral zone, got ahead early and still couldn't beat the Red Wings on home ice after Detroit had played 600 miles away the night before while the Bruins were lounging in their living rooms.
"We're learning how to play down and dirty games," said Osgood. "The last few years, we would have had a 50-50 chance to win a game like this. … This year, we win 2-1 or 3-1 or 3-2. We wouldn't have won those last year or the year before. We don't panic. We stay focused. We don't care who scores. We can win in more ways this year than I've ever seen before."
In coach Mike Babcock's first season in Detroit (2005-06), the Red Wings won 58 games. Babcock remarked how that squad seemed to win on good night or on bad, just showing up seemed to lead to victories. This winter, Babcock has noted that it's difficult to believe that this team wins more often than that team did.
And wins are the currency with which Babcock determines all value.
"We're not the people who said that winning in the regular season isn't important," said Babcock. "Anybody who tells you that is full of it. Winning every night's important. That's what you do. That's why you play. You try to be the best that you can be. I don't know what the stats are over the past 10 years, but there's no way you've got as good a chance if you crawl into the playoffs as if you're the best team. There's no way. It can't be possible."