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Key Wings getting closer, not ready to return yet

by Brian Hedger
DETROIT -- They're getting closer, but several key contributors to the Detroit Red Wings aren't quite there yet in their recovery from various injuries.

The Red Wings will host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night at Joe Louis Arena (7:30 p.m.) without starting goalie Jimmy Howard (groin), forward Johan Franzen (back) and defenseman Jonathan Ericsson (wrist) -- who all still hope to return to the lineup sometime this week.

Howard took shots again in Detroit's morning skate, while Ericsson and Franzen participated fully in the session.

"We'd like to get healthy, like to get playing going into the playoffs," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who sported a red McGill University cap to celebrate his alma mater's Canadian university hockey national championship won on Sunday night. "I thought our club played well the other night (against Carolina). You want to be confident going into the playoffs. In order to do that you need wins.''

You also need as many top players in the lineup as possible. On that front, Babcock can at least pencil in legendary defenseman and Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom to his top pairing for a second straight game. Lidstrom is back after missing a career-high 11 straight games with a deep bruise in his ankle.

He returned to the ice for the first time in Saturday night's stirring 5-4 comeback win against the Hurricanes and went through the morning skate on Monday. While he's still not 100 percent, the good news is the ankle didn't regress in the two days since playing last.

"It felt good (Sunday), no real setbacks or any more soreness than I anticipated," said Lidstrom, who'd been having some trouble turning on the ice a little more than a week ago. "(My mobility) is a lot better. Before I had more of a sharp pain, which I don't have anymore. It's going to be sore for some time, but it is a lot better."

Babcock was just happy to see No. 5 back in the active lineup, regardless of the 41-year old star's limitations.

“He was a long way from being what he's capable of being the other night," Babcock said. "I don't know if it's so much what he did in the game as what he just brings with his presence and who he is and his calmness. We really moved the puck well, spent a lot of time in the offensive zone the other night. Anytime you have quality D, that allows that to happen."

Detroit is also missing speedy center Darren Helm (knee sprain) for at least a couple more weeks and probably won't get forward Patrick Eaves (concussion symptoms) back this season. As for the three Wings who are getting closer to returning, Howard is targeting Friday, Franzen hopes to get a couple of full practices in and go Wednesday or Friday, and Ericsson hopes to be cleared by Wednesday's game in Columbus.

"It feels better and better every day," said Ericsson, a big defenseman who's missed 12 straight games since his wrist was fractured by a shot. "Everything's going forward.''

Babcock sounded like he wanted to play Ericsson on Monday night, but won't have him as an option despite the big Swedish blueliner's slap shot rounding back into form.

“I know. I hear him every day," Ericsson said of Babcock. "It's getting really close. I think we want to be more careful now, so it doesn't get worse before the playoffs. Try to be smart about it. Shooting is fine. It's more battling stuff. I haven't really tried pushing people around in the corners. It's going to be a test. I'm going to have someone like maybe [Franzen] to push around the corner."

Howard's issue is strengthening the groin muscle that's giving him an issue.

"Right now it's more about getting healthy, getting out there and not thinking about groins, and just playing," said Howard, who will miss his third straight game on Monday because of the issue -- which also cost him three games earlier in March. "We're taking a little bit different route this time around, trying to strengthen it a little more."

Howard said the injury isn't about his flexibility, though.

"It wasn't really stretching it or anything like that sort of motion that was bothering me," he said. "It was more getting tired and feeling weak, so strengthening it is the key now.''

As for Franzen, his back spasms have subsided and conditioning is the biggest hurdle left before he gets back in a live game.

"Now it's more about getting back in shape and getting skating," said Franzen, Detroit's leading goal scorer who's skated for five straight days. "You lose more than you think being out for a week. You're off one week and it goes straight downhill.''

Franzen said a magnetic reasonance imaging test was run on his back and got relatively good news.

“We did an MRI ... looking good," the 32-year old Swedish power forward said. "Nothing out of the ordinary. Just looked like an old hockey player's back. Nothing extreme.''

An old hockey player's back?

“Yeah," Franzen said. "A 32-year-old hockey player's back."

Steve Mason will start in goal for Columbus, which lost 6-3 to the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday afternoon. Here's a look at how the Blue Jackets and Red Wings might line up on Monday night:

RJ Umberger - Derick Brassard - Cam Atkinson
Vinny Prospal - Mark Letestu - Rick Nash
Ryan Russell - Ryan Johansen - Derek Dorsett
Colton Gillies - Darryl Boyce - Jared Boll

Jack Johnson - David Savard
John Moore - Brett Lebda
Nikita Nikitin - Aaron Johnson

Steve Mason
Allen York

Valtteri Filppula - Henrik Zetterberg - Jiri Hudler
Gustav Nyquist - Pavel Datsyuk - Todd Bertuzzi
Drew Miller - Justin Abdelkader - Danny Cleary
Tomas Holmstrom - Cory Emmerton - Jan Mursak

Nicklas Lidstrom - Ian White
Niklas Kronwall - Brad Stuart
Kyle Quincey - Jakub Kindl

Ty Conklin
Jordan Pearce
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