The Red Wings, a perennial Stanley Cup contender, are in the unfamiliar position of fighting just to get into the playoffs.
The Canucks need a win over their final four regular-season games to clinch a playoff spot. But a recent road trip where Vancouver managed just two wins in five games has raised questions about how long the club can survive in the playoffs.
Detroit has made the playoffs 21 consecutive seasons but that streak is in jeopardy.
Heading into Friday night's games, Detroit (20-16-7, 47 points) is tied with Dallas for 10th spot in the Western Conference, two points behind eighth-place Columbus.
"It's a little unusual," veteran defenceman Niklas Kronwall said about the predicament the Red Wings find themselves in. "We are in a different spot from last year.
"Many other teams have been in the same situation. We just have to deal with it. You still want to play hard, you still want to play with a lot of desperation. We know every game is huge now. All we can do is try to look out for ourselves. We can't hope for any other team to help us out in any way."
Vancouver (24-13-7, 55 points) is third in the West and four points ahead head of the Minnesota Wild in the race for the Northwest Division title.
The Canucks did not skate Friday after ending their five-game road trip with a 5-1 loss to Dallas on Thursday night. Vancouver held leads in every one of the games but players were guilty of making costly turnovers and taking mental vacations.
"It's happening too much lately," goaltender Cory Schneider told reporters in Dallas after the loss. "If you want to win in the playoffs you have to protect leads.
"Right now we are not as good as we should be at it. In the past few years when we got a lead, it was game over."
Vancouver won consecutive Presidents Trophies and came within one game of winning the 2011 Stanley Cup. The team has been under a microscope this season after being upset by the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of last year's playoffs.
Besides Detroit, the Canucks face Chicago on Monday and Anaheim on Thursday before ending the regular season in Edmonton on Saturday.
The team is dealing with some injuries.
Defenceman Kevin Bieksa is listed as day-to-day with a lower-body injury suffered in Monday's win over Nashville. Winger Chris Higgins (knee) is skating and expected back before the playoffs. Defenceman Chris Tanev (ankle) won't be back before the postseason.
Schneider, who has replaced Roberto Luongo as Vancouver's starting goaltender, said the Canucks are making some of the same mistakes they did coming out of training camp.
"We're 44 games into the season," he said. "The playoffs start (soon). I think we're past the point of learning lessons.
"We have to go out and do it and execute and beat the teams we know we can beat. I don't think we are showing it for 60 minutes."
The last time Detroit missed the playoffs Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace was the top grossing movie at the box office, Sinead O'Connor's Nothing Compares 2 U was a big hit on the radio and rookie Red Wing defenceman Danny DeKeyser had just been born about 30 minutes north of Detroit.
Since then, the Red Wings have won the Stanley Cup four times, twice lost in the final and finished first in the Western Conference six times.
"It's a really good streak," said DeKeyser, signed as a free agent March 30 after playing college hockey at Western Michigan. "We have to keep it going."
This year the Wings have been clipped by the retirement of veterans like Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom and Brian Rafalski. There also has been injuries to players like forwards Darren Helm, Todd Bertuzzi and Mikael Samuelsson.
Detroit has scored 108 goals this year, the fourth-least in the West.
"It's been a grind for us," said coach Mike Babcock. "The great thing about what we have going here, I think we've played hard.
"We don't score a bunch of goals so we can't outscore our mistakes. That means we have to defend really well."
For years the Red Wings have been one of the NHL's flagship franchises. Babcock understands what missing the playoffs would mean to the pride and prestige of the organization.
"What 21 years in the playoffs means, it's a sign of greatness over a period of time," he said. "If you are Henrik Zetterberg, and it's your first year as the captain, you don't want it on your watch. If you're Mike Babcock and you're eight years in as coach, you don't want it on your watch.
"If you're any one of those players that has a stake in the Red Wings . . . they don't want it on their watch either. The bottom line is, all that is fluff and in the way. We have a game (Saturday). It's play it."