DETROIT -- Henrik Zetterberg's beard is ready for the Stanley Cup Playoffs but his surgically repaired back is not.
Thus, his focus is fairly simple right now. The injured Detroit Red Wings captain is biding his time doing rehab and strengthening exercises to get ready for his possible return at some point during the postseason.
"That's the goal," Zetterberg said Wednesday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena while meeting with reporters for the first time since having surgery to repair a herniated disk. "I want to play hockey again this year and obviously that would be sometime in the playoffs. So, I might as well get a head start [on the playoff beard]."
This is not the first back issue for the 33-year old, who first injured his back in 2007 and missed several weeks. He then missed the 2008 All-Star Weekend with back issues. It flared up again this season.
Zetterberg missed 11 games in December, when the now-repaired disc was just slightly herniated, and missed two more games in January because of it. Zetterberg went to the 2014 Sochi Olympics with Sweden in February and played one game before it got worse. He told a Swedish reporter the pain was "20 times worse" than in December and it took a week just to be able to endure a flight home. He had surgery Feb. 21 at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
Left Wing - DET
GOALS: 16 | ASST: 32 | PTS: 48
SOG: 151 | +/-: 19
The procedure removed two parts of the disk that were rubbing against a nerve. Zetterberg cannot take contact for eight weeks following surgery, which woud take him to the middle of April.
The playoffs are set to begin April 16, so the timing could work out for his return during a postseason series. It will depend on his conditioning level, but also on the Red Wings qualifying.
"I'm kind of jealous I'm not in it," Zetterberg said of Detroit's playoff chase. "This is the best time of the year. We want to make the playoffs, and whenever we're in the playoffs it's the best time of the year. We went through this last year, too, and the guys are doing a great job. They're battling. We know what we have to do. We have to win games. I don't like sitting and watching from the outside, so the games are pretty tough. I'd rather be in there to play."
Detroit (33-25-14) has been racked with injuries to key parts of its lineup all season and continues to play with a lot of first- or second-year players. The Red Wings have 10 games left and began Wednesday as one of four teams in the Eastern Conference with 80 points. They held the final wild-card spot based on 28 non-shootout wins, three more than the Washington Capitals.
Aside from the injured veterans, including Zetterberg and top center Pavel Datsyuk (knee), it's a similar situation to last season. The Red Wings had to beat the Dallas Stars on the last day of the 2012-2013 schedule to extend their streak of qualifying for the playoffs to 22 straight seasons. They upset the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Quarterfinals before taking the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to overtime of Game 7 in the semifinal round.
"We showed that last year," Zetterberg said, when asked if the Red Wings could be a real problem for somebody in this season's playoffs. "Same thing this year, [we've] just got to get in. It’s going to be a battle for us, but in a way, we're going to have played playoff hockey for a while and we're kind of used to that."
They're banking on the return of Zetterberg, Datsyuk, center Stephen Weiss (sports hernia), forward Justin Abdelkader (leg laceration), defenseman Jonathan Ericsson (fractured finger) and others.
"It's not just me and [Datsyuk] who's out," Zetterberg said. "There's a lot of guys [out] too. But I think, also, the guys who came up from Grand Rapids [of the American Hockey League] and other additions that we've had, have played really well. If it wasn't for all the injuries we've had this year, we wouldn't have seen all those guys. We wouldn't have known what we had in the system, so [we've] just got to get through this, get into the playoffs and then we can have some fun."
That process for Zetterberg begins and ends with his back, which he said has improved quite a bit in the past two weeks. The pain was gone after surgery, but stiffness still needs to be worked out.
"The rehab goes as planned," Zetterberg said. "I’ve been moving a lot more the last two weeks. Just got to take it step-by-step and so far, no hiccups. Just got to stay that way."
Odd as it might seem, thanks to the Red Wings' injury situation, Zetterberg is Detroit's leading scorer with 48 points (16 goals and 32 assists) in 45 games. He hasn't second-guessed his decisions to forego surgery in December then travel to Sochi for the Olympics, and said he doesn't think the disk will be an ongoing issue the rest of his career.
"I think this had to be done," Zetterberg said. "We went in, took away two pieces from my disk that were pushing on the nerve and once this is healed and properly rehabbed, I shouldn't have an issue again."