The Joe Louis Arena sits peacefully on the banks of the Detroit River, an iconic and aging structure in one of America's most American cities. Once an outpost for post-Soviet Russian talent, the Joe has now become, unofficially, Sweden's U.S. hockey embassy. Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson have all called Detroit home (even if just briefly in the case of Alfredsson). And now a 24-year-old center from Halmstad is making his mark, prolonging the Red Wings' Swedish legacy as he helps them extend their season into a 23rd consecutive playoff appearance.
Since the Olympic break, no player has wowed hockey fans more than Gustav Nyquist, whose highlight reel seems to get longer with every game. On March 30, he scored an awe-inspiring goal against the Lightning, streaking down the ice with a defenseman draped on his back.
With 21 goals and 34 points in his last 30 games, Nyquist has been the engine of Detroit's postseason bid. Back at the beginning of March, with Zetterberg recovering from back surgery and center Pavel Datsyuk tending to a knee injury, the outlook for the Red Wings seemed dim. They were struggling through the heart of their schedule, with a new problem seeming to crop up in every game -- goaltending issues one night, goal-scoring issues the next. It seemed very possible that Detroit might miss the postseason for the first time since 1990.
But in five short weeks, everything has changed. With old, reliable names out of the lineup, new ones began to emerge. Before this season, Nyquist and 23-year-old left-winger Tomas Tatar had combined to score nine goals in 67 NHL games. Now they lead the Red Wings with 28 and 19 goals, respectively, and are being called the team's next generation of stars.
It might be too early to hand the keys to the franchise to this prolific duo, but there are reasons to believe that their success is no fluke. Both Nyquist and Tatar were perhaps overripe by the time they stuck with the Wings. As is the case with most of Detroit's best prospects, breaking into the lineup is often the hardest part of their NHL journey. Since signing in March 2011, Nyquist, a fourth-rounder in 2008, has been sent down to the minors 11 times. Tatar has made nine such trips since he was drafted with the 60th pick in '09.
Such is the plight of playing for a deep, talented and well-managed organization. When success is as longstanding and commonplace as it has been at the Joe, there isn't much patience for learning on the job. Particularly up front, rookies come in with plenty of experience -- albeit minor-league experience. So to go with his impressive speed, Nyquist has developed a hockey IQ that is already "off the charts," in the words of Detroit coach Mike Babcock. And Tatar has shown no quit in his play as he continues to make those around him better.
The emergence of Nyquist and Tatar has made the Red Wings a dark-horse contender as the regular season comes to a close on Sunday. With Datsyuk back in the lineup (he missed 30 games with his knee injury) and a likely first-round meeting against the ailing and inconsistent Penguins, Detroit could make a run in the largely pedestrian Eastern Conference.