DETROIT – The Detroit Red Wings are in first place in the Atlantic Division with 65 points thanks to a six-game winning streak.
They'll have a chance to cushion their spot atop the division Thursday night when they visit the Tampa Bay Lightning -- a team with 64 points, a high-powered offense and now a problem with the Red Wings, who seemingly came out of nowhere to grab 1st place from them.
The Wings continued their winning ways Tuesday night in Florida where they topped the Panthers, 5-4. They are now 8-2 in their past 10 games.
How the Red Wings got here:
If you somehow haven't been paying attention to this team during the past month, you might want to start now. They climbed the division standings pretty fast and they did it with authority.
For example: The Red Wings have scored 5 or more goals in each of their past four games. They took down one of the Western Conference's top teams the Nashville Predators (albeit without world-class goalie Pekka Rinne). They boast the league's second-best power play percentage at 25.3 percent and are in the top 10 in penalty killing.
Coach Mike Babcock's squad is winning without All-Star goalie Jimmy Howard, without a "big-name" defenseman (no offense to 34-year-old Niklas Kronwall) and without what many would consider a bonafide, in-his-prime NHL goal scorer, though Tomas Tatar is making a name for himself. He already has 21 goals this season (the same is for Gustav Nyquist who has 19).
That's an important thing to point out with this team: The best players are coming from within. Tatar and Nyquist are Detroit draft picks who earned their spot after seasons spent with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins. That's the system in Detroit, and it's working. Teemu Pulkkinen could be next.
Another example of the growth-from-within success is rookie goalie Petr Mrazek, who is just 22 years old. Now that the starting role is his with both Howard and backup Jonas Gustavsson hurt, Mrazek is playing as if he has done this before.
Add in depth scoring (4th-liner Luke Glendening scored twice Tuesday night while Drew Miller notched a shorthanded goal), young defensemen (Xavier Oulett and Brendan Smith) who are relishing their roles, and star veterans who are healthy (Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Kronwall), and this is a scary, playoff-ready team poised to go deep into the postseason.
Now is when the fun starts.
Thursday's game against GM Steve Yzerman's Lightning probably is the biggest yet for Detroit this season.
Last year at this time the Red Wings were fighting for a playoff spot. Now, they're fighting for the top spot in the division (and in the Eastern Conference).
Things change quickly in this league, but those who have been paying attention will tell you this is no surprise. This team has been building toward this for a few seasons.