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Top Shelf: Red Wings following Nyquist's lead

<p>The last time the Detroit Red Wings failed to make the playoffs, Gustav Nyquist was less than a year old.</p>

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The last time the Detroit Red Wings failed to make the playoffs, Gustav Nyquist was less than a year old.

Currently, the 24-year-old Swede and other young Red Wings are doing their best to ensure Detroit keeps its lengthy postseason streak alive.

Nyquist has taken the offensive lead for the Red Wings during the second half of a season that has seen Detroit decimated by injuries to key players. After entering 2013-14 with only four goals in 40 career games, he has exploded for 28 goals in 51 outings this season, including a staggering 23 markers over the last 28 games.

One of Nyquist's biggest goals came Wednesday evening against the visiting Boston Bruins, a team that entered the contest with a 15-0-1 record in its previous 16 games.

With the score tied at 2-2 in the latter stages of the third period, the speedy winger picked up a loose puck in his own zone before torching Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara down the middle of the ice for a breakaway goal. The tally stood up for the win and Boston went down in regulation for the first time since March 1.

The highlight-reel score gave Nyquist a goal in three straight games and he has lit the lamp 12 times over his past 10 trips to the ice. More importantly, the win gave Detroit a three-point lead over Columbus for the first of the Eastern Conference's two wild card spots and moved the Wings four points clear of ninth-seeded Toronto.

Of course, with six games left on Detroit's regular-season slate, making the playoffs is far from a certainty. However, if the Red Wings avoid missing the postseason tournament for the first time since the 1989-90 campaign, Nyquist's contributions during the stretch run will be the biggest reason why.

Detroit is second only to Pittsburgh this season in terms of man-games lost to injuries with 379. But while the Penguins have managed to have superstar Sidney Crosby in the lineup for all 76 games, the Red Wings have played huge stretches without their two best skaters -- Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

Team captain Zetterberg and fellow forward Datsyuk have combined to play in only 84 games this season, and only two since the NHL returned from the Olympic break in late February.

The good news is Datsyuk is due to play his first game since Feb. 27 when Detroit hosts Buffalo on Friday. Meanwhile, Zetterberg, who still leads the team in scoring with 48 points in only 45 games, won't be able to return from back surgery until the playoffs.

While Nyquist has stepped up his game the most with Detroit's two biggest stars on the shelf, he hasn't been alone. A pair of young Slovakian forwards -- Tomas Jurco and Tomas Tatar -- also have turned heads in the Motor City.

In fact, less than two minutes before Nyquist's game-winner on Wednesday, Jurco, 21, and Tatar, 23, hooked up to produce the tying score. After a scramble in the crease, Tatar managed to kick the puck to Jurco for an open- net goal. Earlier in the contest, Tatar had notched his 19th goal of the season and fifth in the last eight games.

After Wednesday's clutch victory against the East's top team, Detroit starting goaltender Jimmy Howard praised the play of his younger teammates and how they've grown into important roles for the team.

"It's been tough this year watching the young guys and hoping guys get back here," Howard said. "We've done a good job to keep ourselves above the red line (on the standings board) and watching the way these young guys, the way they've come along this year and the way they've grown, it shows how bright this organization is in the future."

Of course, credit for finding diamonds in the rough and giving them polish ultimately goes to Detroit general manager Ken Holland and head coach Mike Babcock, who are arguably the best the league has to offer at their respective jobs.

Holland has been Detroit's GM for three of the franchise's four Stanley Cup titles over the past two decades while serving as the assistant GM for the other one. Even though the Wings haven't picked higher than 19th overall during his tenure with the club, Holland's ability to get value at the draft has become the stuff of legend.

In light of his recent outburst, Nyquist, a fourth-round pick in 2008, could soon join Holland's group of under-the-radar stars. That list already includes Datsyuk (sixth round, 1998), Zetterberg (seventh round, 1999) and Johan Franzen (third round, 2004).

With Holland getting bang for his buck at the draft, he also can count on his head coach getting the most out his players.

By leading Team Canada to gold at each of the last two Winter Olympics and Detroit to its last Cup title in 2008, Babcock has shown he can do great things with a stacked lineup. Over the last few seasons in Motown, Babcock also has shown he can work well with a team facing depth issues, something he has had to do deal with recently in Detroit.

With Babcock and Holland in charge, the Red Wings have installed a cohesive system not only for its NHL club, but one that also extends to the club's American Hockey League affiliate in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Both Nyquist and Tatar spent 100-plus games with the Griffins, as they were gradually schooled in the ways of Red Wings hockey. Even Jurco, who wasn't legally allowed to drink in the United States until December, spent 74 games apprenticing for Grand Rapids last season.

Considering its been nearly a quarter-century since the franchise has missed the playoffs, the Detroit's formula for rebuilding on the fly has clearly been a successful one.

For the Red Wings, it's obviously a relief a guy of Datsyuk's caliber is ready to return for the final stretch of the regular season. Then again, knowing they can get by without him has to be pretty comforting, too.

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