DETROIT -- Slowly but surely, the hobbled Detroit Red Wings are making their way back to the ice as the regular season winds to its close in the next couple weeks.
The biggest question mark, however, is if there is enough time for all of the walking wounded to get back up to top form before the playoffs start?
"When you miss lots of hockey, you know ... it's the NHL," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "It's good games. It's good players. You've got to spend some time playing if you're going to be succesful."
And that's where the Red Wings currently find themselves, with a number of injured regulars still out for a game Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Detroit will still be without starting goalie Jimmy Howard (groin), big-bodied defenseman Jonathan Ericsson (wrist fracture), power forward Johan Franzen (back spasms), center Darren Helm (knee sprain) and backup goalie Joey MacDonald (back issues).
The good news is they will get defenseman Jakub Kindl (oblique strain) back on the blue line after missing eight games, while captain and top defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom might play after missing a career-high 11 straight games with a deep bone bruise in his ankle.
Lidstrom, who took part in Detroit's optional morning skate and looked close to his normal skating form, will be a "game-time" decision after he takes warmups to test it out for a second time in the same day.
"I'm going to be sore for a while," said Lidstrom, who's clearly been frustrated by having to miss so many games in a row. "It's going to be staying with me for a while. It's just a matter of not getting worse. I think that's what they're afraid of ... that it's going to get worse. So, that's why they want me to come down here again and take warmups."
Whether he plays against the Hurricanes or not, it looks like Lidstrom is close to returning and both Ericsson and Franzen hope to be back in action at some point next week. Ericsson is actually hoping to play Monday against the Columbus Blue Jackets after healing enough from a fractured wrist that occured in the same Feb. 25 game against Colorado that knocked Lidstrom out.
Detroit also just got star center Pavel Datsyuk back two games ago after almost a month absence from arthroscopic knee surgery and has several players who've played through some nagging injuries that might've sidelined them had the team been relatively healthy.
The question now, however, is how many Red Wings can return before the playoffs and how soon before the regular season ends?
"It's great to see all the guys getting back out there," said Howard, who's also missed extended time this season with a broken index finger. "We need to get healthy and hopefully we can leave this injury bug behind us. It's been a rough month and half, two months for us in that aspect. At the same point, we've got to find a way to win games."
If they do and get healthy in time for the playoffs, do they still feel like they can be one of the League's elite teams and a Stanley Cup contender this season?
"Yeah, I think so, but you can't just turn it on like that," said Franzen, the Wings' leading goal-scorer (26) who will miss his fourth straight game with his back issue. "You've got to be together for a while and play some good games and get the confidence going. When we get that going, yeah, we are a really good team."
Franzen skated for the second day in a row Saturday morning, including an extensive conditioning skate after the players who were playing on Saturday night left the ice. Franzen said he didn't feel great afterward, but not because of his back -- which he said felt okay.
"Back feels pretty good, but I feel awful out there," he said. "It's been awhile since I've [done] anything, so I've just got to get the lungs back. I feel like I've been out for a while and it's first time skating hard today and doing anything hard actually. So, yeah, I can definitely feel that."
He doesn't have a set date that he hopes to be back, but said the coming week is a strong possibility. He also feels like returning before the end of the regular season is a must if hes going to be at his best in the postseason -- where he's made a lot of noise in long playoff runs before.
"That's important," the 6-foot-3, 223-pound Franzen said. "I'm going to get back before the playoffs start. That's for sure. Need to get some games in and gets the legs back and get the lungs back."