DENVER -- Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said he did not specifically target the 2016 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series Game against the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday as the deadline for his comeback from knee surgery.
Kronwall missed 15 games after having a surgical procedure done to alleviate chronic knee pain. He returned Tuesday against the Columbus Blue Jackets, playing 24:25 in a 2-1 shootout victory, and said he's ready for the Stadium Series game at Coors Field (8 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports).
"For me, I know it is a big game and something that you don't want to miss, but in saying that, you don't want to miss any games," he said Friday. "It was just trying to get back when things felt ready, whether it was last week or next week. It was important to get back and be able to play where everything felt right."
The Red Wings are ecstatic that Kronwall is back in time to play against the Avalanche. With 71 points, Detroit holds the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference; the Red Wings are chasing the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins, who hold the second and third spots in the Atlantic Division standings.
"He's our top-minute guy, plays the most, plays in all situations," defenseman Danny DeKeyser said of Kronwall. "He's a veteran presence back there for us. He's our leader."
Kronwall's leadership might be the most integral part of his return. The Red Wings will face distractions Saturday, playing outdoors on one of the game's biggest stages. The 2016 NHL Trade Deadline comes on Monday, followed by a 19-game sprint to the finish line of the regular season.
"I thought before he had the surgery, he was starting to play to the ability that he has," coach Jeff Blashill said. "What he is, in those moments to me, is a great two-way player. He's great defensively, as good as anyone in the League, and he is good offensively as well.
"Probably, most importantly, he brings a veteran presence. He's got a great presence to him. He's calm, he's demanding of our players to do it right."
While it was hard to lose Kronwall, his absence allowed DeKeyser to further accelerate his maturation process. DeKeyser, 25, may well one day be the heir apparent to the roles presently played by the 35-year-old Kronwall.
DeKeyser averages 21:30 of ice time per game. During Kronwall's absence, he topped that number nine times, including each of the past three games.
While watching and waiting to return to the lineup, Kronwall noticed DeKeyser was thriving in a more prominent role.
"I think he felt the responsibility a little bit more than he did previously. But in saying that, he's been great for us all year," Kronwall said. "He was great for us this year. I think he has just kept going, climbing on the ladder, because there really is no limit on how good he can get."
Kronwall is not the only one to feel so strongly about DeKeyser, who is in his third full NHL season.
"Danny, in my estimation, is as good a shutdown defender as there is in the NHL," Blashill said. "I think he is as good as anybody in the NHL from his own red line back to the net. I'd call it a modern-day shutdown guy. He does a great job of skating back and breaking the puck out. He does a great job of utilizing his stick to defend. Gone probably are the days of the big bruisers; now it's more the days of the great stick in the NHL. He has great defensive smarts."
Kronwall's absence allowed Blashill to pile more minutes on DeKeyser and see what the returns would be. They were universally positive.
Now Kronwall is back in the lineup to complement DeKeyser, and his timing couldn't be better.