PITTSBURGH (DETROIT FREE PRESS) - There was nothing but satisfaction.
There was the satisfaction of having secured a 23rd straight trip to the playoffs, of having outplayed an opponent they might meet in the first round, of having faith in each other, and having fun.
The Red Wings lost, 4-3, Wednesday night at Consol EnergyCenter to the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it was in a shoot-out, and all the Wings needed was the one point to clinch a playoff spot. They have a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference locked up, falling to the second one as Columbus won against Dallas, but with two games left to make a grasp for the first one.
It was the rare loss that felt celebratory.
"It's awesome," Daniel Alfredsson said. "We worked extremely hard to get to this point. It feels great. We played well enough to win today, and it would have been even better, but clinching a playoff spot is huge. This group has overcome a lot of adversity, and that makes it even more fun.
"I think we'll try to finish off strong here, and try to go into the playoffs feeling good."
How can they not? The guys who scored in this crucial game — sure the Wings had two more chances to earn one more point, but better to get it out of the way — were some of the youngest on the team: 21-year-old Tomas Jurco, 22-year-old Riley Sheahan, and third-pair defenseman Jakub Kindl. Were it not for Jurco, Sheahan, Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist, the Wings would not have overcome Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg being injured half of the season.
"We've had a tough go," coach Mike Babcock said. "Everyone gets injuries, it's just, you can't get injuries to too many of the wrong people, and when we lost Pav and Z for so much of the year — the rest of these guys have stepped up. Our team is way better than it was at the start of the year because we've got so many kids and they've won jobs and they're going to keep their jobs."
Sheahan's goal with 1:15 left in regulation is going to stick with him for life: Taking a face-off against superstar Sidney Crosby and then sliding out and sending a pass from Niklas Kronwall hopping past Marc-Andre Fleury, who had Jurco, Tatar and Brendan Smith threatening near the crease.
"It was definitely pretty exciting," Sheahan said. "We had good chaos in front, so I wasn't even sure it was me who scored. I saw Smitty go low so I went to go cover for his point, and then Kronner gave me a great pass and I just tried to get it on net."
The evening quite possibly served as a preview of a first-round matchup, as the Wings are likely to finish with a wild card in the Eastern Conference, which will open against either the Boston Bruins or the Penguins, their rival from the 2008 and 2009 Stanley Cup finals. The Wings went 3-1 against Boston this season, 1-1-1 against Pittsburgh.
The Wings dominated in five-on-five play Wednesday, outshooting the Penguins at a double clip until late in the third period, with a 37-24 total in Detroit's favor. James Neal made the Wings pay for two penalties, stuffing a backhand on the first and snapping a shot from the left circle on the second goal.
Pittsburgh's third goal saw Jonas Gustavsson stop Kris Letang's shot only to have the puck slide on into the paint, where Jussi Jokinen sent it into the net. Jokinen was the only one to score in the shoot-out, on a move Gustavsson conceded was crazy.
"It was bad ice and he lost the puck and it started rolling for him," Gustavsson said. "I was just pretty much going to touch it because it was shoot-out. It took a funny bounce and kind of lobbed over me. If I played it a 100 times again, I don't think it would take that angle."
Gustavsson said he felt bad after the first Jokinen goal, but then teammates reminded him before overtime: Mission accomplished.