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Finally healthy, Wings hone in on playoffs

by Rick Sadowski
DENVER -- Healthy for the first time since the season began, the Detroit Red Wings are looking to regain their usual position among the Western Conference's elite with a little more than six weeks remaining before the playoffs.

"For us, the exciting thing is it looks right now that we're finally getting healthy. That's something we haven't been able to say all year," alternate captain Kris Draper told following Monday morning's skate at the Pepsi Center, where the Red Wings were to meet the Colorado Avalanche in the NHL's first post-Olympic contest.

"We've had not only long-term injuries, but long-term injuries to key hockey players. Now I think everyone's excited in this room with what we have. Now we have to go out and prove it and win hockey games and find ourselves right in that mix."

The defending conference champions began the night in 10th place in the West, 21 points behind front-running San Jose, 19 points behind Central Division-leading Chicago and one point removed from the eighth and final playoff berth.

This is unchartered territory for a veteran like Draper, who in 15 previous seasons in Detroit helped the Red Wings win 12 division titles, six conference championships and four Stanley Cups.

"Early on we were really struggling to score goals," Draper said. "If you look where we are offensively, we're not near where we've been in previous years. If you're not scoring in this League, it's tough to win hockey games. That's one thing, but I think that relates to all the injuries we've had, losing the players that we did lose."

With 159 goals in their first 61 games, the Red Wings had the third-worst offense in the West despite a gaggle of NHL All-Stars.

But Johan Franzen missed 55 games to recover from knee surgery, Jason Williams 38 games with a fractured fibula, Niklas Kronwall 30 games with a sprained knee, Valtteri Filppula 26 games with a broken wrist, Tomas Holmstron 13 games with a broken foot and Henrik Zetterberg eight games with a separated shoulder.

Andreas Lilja was set to make his season debut against the Avalanche, his first game in 366 days after suffering a concussion. He replaced Kirk Maltby on the 23-man roster; Maltby is expected to undergo shoulder surgery this week.

In all, the Red Wings have lost 282 man-games to injuries, prompting some folks to wonder if it might have been appropriate to attach a few bandages to the team's winged wheel logo.

"I think people understand," Draper said, when asked if Detroit fans have been in panic mode over the club's plight, "but they also expect results. It's our job to go and win hockey games and put ourselves in the playoffs. The good thing is, we have 21 games to go, to put ourselves in that situation, to put ourselves in the playoff hunt. That's exactly what we're going to do."

Some home cooking could help Detroit. Twelve of the final 21 games will be played at Joe Louis Arena, where the Red Wings have posted a 16-8-5 record. Also, nine games remain with teams that are currently out of the playoffs, three against 14th place Columbus and two with 15th place Edmonton.

"We believe in ourselves," Draper said. "Everybody in this dressing room believes we can win a lot of hockey games down the stretch and get right into that mix. If we get in the playoffs, we know that being a one, two or three seed doesn't mean anything in the Western Conference. There are a lot of good teams and we just want to be one of the eight teams that does get in. Once we get in there, anything can happen."

Assuming the Red Wings qualify for postseason play for the 19th consecutive time, regardless of seeding, they would be certain to be a dangerous opponent for anyone.

"That's our attitude, too," Draper said. "We have a lot of players that have won a lot in this dressing room. We want to be a real tough team down the stretch and be a great team in the playoffs."

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