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Ericsson now a prime time player

by Brian Compton
PITTSBURGH -- One year ago, Detroit Red Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson was on this same sheet of ice at Mellon Arena, celebrating his organization's fourth Stanley Cup championship in 11 years.

It was a bittersweet moment for the 6-foot-5 defenseman, who appeared in only eight games during the 2007-08 regular season, and none during the playoffs. Although he had a chance to hoist Lord Stanley -- a feeling plenty of veterans still have yet to experience -- something just wasn't right.

"When I held it, I actually thought that I wasn't really a big part of the team," Ericsson admitted Tuesday morning, just hours before the Red Wings aimed for back-to-back titles against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. "I was a part of it, but I didn't contribute. I just felt that I just want to contribute and hold this … that would feel even better.

"It was an outstanding feeling of course, but something was missing about it."

Should Detroit be victorious Tuesday night, the feeling will be entirely different for Ericsson. The 25-year-old is 3-3-6 in 20 games this postseason, which he spent some quality time skating alongside six-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom. Ericsson even had an emergency appendectomy in these playoffs, only to return to action just two days later -- for Game 1 of this series against the Pens.

"He's come a long, long way, obviously," Wings coach Mike Babcock said of Ericsson, who appeared in 40 games for AHL Grand Rapids this season before going 1-3-4 in 19 contests with Detroit. "His development, I think they've done a good job. When he came here, he was a forward and they kept him in the minors for a long period of time -- even though the coach wanted him to come sooner. By the time he got here, he was a good player."

So much so that Babcock felt comfortable placing Ericsson on the top defense pairing after Brian Rafalski was forced to miss the first five games of Detroit's second-round series against the Anaheim Ducks. Lidstrom has been impressed with his fellow countryman.

"Jonny has been a great addition," Lidstrom said. "When he came to us in the second half of the season, we had some injuries and he had a chance to play. He really grabbed that opportunity, too. Once the playoffs started, he looked like a veteran out there. He played with poise. He used his size to his advantage. He hasn't looked that nervous in the playoffs."

Despite this being his first chance at contributing to a Stanley Cup championship, Ericsson said he slept "better than I usually do" on Monday night. No nerves here.

"I feel fine … I'm not nervous at all," Ericsson said. "I'm not trying to think about what kind of game this is. I just want to do what I do every day in preparing for games and just come out and be ready when the puck is dropped."

Perhaps that's when the butterflies will start to show?

"Maybe … I've been a little bit nervous before, like before the first game in some rounds," Ericsson admitted. "But as soon as I get my first shift out there, I feel good out there and I'm not nervous at all."

Certainly, it helps that Tuesday night will be Ericsson's 21st appearance in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He plans on depending that experience to help him contribute to the Wings' cause in Game 6.

"Of course, I've gained some experience compared to last year," Ericsson said. "I think that also helped me, just watching all the players and going through all the rounds, just going all the way to the Finals. From playing, I've just gone another step."

Naturally, there have been bumps along the way. Fortunately for Ericsson, though, he has seasoned veterans like Lidstrom and Chris Chelios to lean on, if needed. The pair has combined for nine Norris Trophies.

Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup Final Gear"For guys like that in the League, for Cheli and Nick and those guys around you, to talk to you and help you watch where they put their stick and their feet and how they handle themselves professionally on and off the ice … I think those are invaluable things for a kid," Babcock said.

"You can tell by watching him, he's going to be a good player for a long time," the coach added. "He's a good first passer, he can play against big people, he's a good body and he's good on the penalty kill. He probably has more offensive flair than he's shown thus far."

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