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Red Wings struggling to find secondary scoring

by Brian Hedger

DETROIT -- The subject isn't even open to discussion right now.

Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock insisted he's not going to break up his top line by making star forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg his top two centers, something he's done in recent seasons. Though he briefly split the duo for a game Oct. 26 against the New York Rangers, don't expect to see it again in the near future, including Friday against the Washington Capitals at Joe Louis Arena (7:30 p.m., NHLN-US).

"Yeah, [I did it] for about seven minutes," Babcock said Friday after an optional morning skate. "I'm not doing it."

Instead, the Red Wings will have to find secondary scoring other ways. Zetterberg and Datsyuk are too effective playing next to each other and alongside power forward Todd Bertuzzi.

That top line has combined for 10 of the 18 goals Detroit has scored in the past six games, not to mention 12 assists. Detroit also went 2-1-3 in those games, but the Red Wings haven't won on home ice for a full month (0-1-5) and continue to have issues getting goals from their other three lines and defensemen.

"I know the guys. I talk to them personally," Babcock said of why he doesn't split up Zetterberg and Datsyuk. "I think it helps them and I think they’ve been good. I like what’s going on with that group. So we've got to find someone else to share some of the scoring workload."

The question is, who?

Injuries and ineffectiveness have made it tough for Babcock to settle on consistent lines for each game. Detroit just got back power forward Johan Franzen (two goals, four assists) after a four-game absence but is without second-line center Stephen Weiss, who has two goals and one assist in 17 games.

Weiss has missed the past two games with a groin injury and isn't expected back until next week. Fellow offseason free-agent pickup Daniel Alfredsson hasn't scored a goal since Oct. 30 and has three points in that span. The result has been a hodgepodge of underperforming veterans and rookies in and out of the lineup.

Babcock has jumbled all but his top line multiple times, each time with little sustained success. Even center Darren Helm, who missed all but one game last season with a back injury and just returned from other ailments Nov. 2, was given a chance on the second line. With left wing Tomas Tatar joining the lineup Friday, it likely moves Franzen back to the middle on the second line and Helm to the third line.

"Helmer’s the best third-line center in the League," Babcock said. "We can play him in the second hole. He’s going to be fine but he’s the best third-line center in the League. So if you want to win every night he’s the three."

With Weiss out, Babcock will keep mixing and matching to see if anything sticks beyond the trio of Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Bertuzzi.

"You want to play [the same lines] together every day, but you also want to get on a roll, so you can't," Babcock said. "It's like the chicken or the egg. Which comes first?"

A couple of recent salary-cutting maneuvers might help solidify things up front, at least a little. Veterans Jordin Tootoo and Patrick Eaves cleared waivers in the past two days and reported to Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League, giving Babcock fewer options to toy with up front.

"My job is to evaluate the people and put them in and out [of the lineup]," Babcock said. "Now we have less forwards so that should help guys be in more constant spots. When a guy gets injured you have to make a change, whether you want to or not, because he's not there to play. That leads to change."

Inconsistent production will net that result too.

Unlike their run to Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Red Wings aren't getting the same results from players like center Joakim Andersson and forward Justin Abdelkader, who started the season at right wing with Zetterberg and Datsyuk.

Abdelkader now is on the right side of the fourth line, trying to work his way out of Babcock's doghouse.

"We've had a few injuries, [Franzen's] been out a little bit, the lines have been shuffled around, so we really haven't had a set lineup here for a while and I think that makes a difference," said Abdelkader, who has two goals and four assists in 19 games "We've had some bumps and bruises on [defense] too. At the same time we're getting chances. The puck's just not going in."

The Red Wings still are without defenseman Brendan Smith (shoulder), but will get defenseman Jonathan Ericsson back into his role on the top defense pairing Friday after a 10-game absence to heal a shoulder issue.

"It gives us one more high-end guy to get the puck going and be a better team," Babcock said. "The forwards need the puck and he can do that, plus play against real good players."

Forwards also need confidence, which currently is lacking outside of the top line. Asked if the current six-game winless stretch on home ice might be wearing on his team mentally, Babcock wasted no time answering.

"No question," he said. "Confidence is fleeting in the NHL. It's amazing to me how a guy can score goals all the time and then suddenly not score for a while. It's the same with your team so you got to stay the course."

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