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Wings blue line getting healthier

by Dan Rosen
Detroit coach Mike Babcock welcomed defenseman Jonathan Ericsson back to the lineup Wednesday in Calgary with open arms. He plans on doing the same with veteran blueliner Brian Rafalski next week, and really, he can't wait.

"That's what we're hopeful for," Babcock told Thursday night.

Rafalski, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Oct. 12, had a full practice with the Red Wings on Thursday and Babcock said he'll be back either Monday against Phoenix or Thursday against Edmonton. Both games are at Joe Louis Arena.

"Our power play (8-for-50) can be way better, and Raffy is a guy that will fix our power play in one heck of a hurry just with his ability to move the puck and jump in the hole," Babcock said. "We can use him back for sure. He's an elite, elite player."

The other good piece of Wings' news is the fact that the third line, even minus Jiri Hudler (healthy scratch), popped in two goals Wednesday in Calgary, pacing the team to a 2-1 grind-it-out win. The goals, scored by Mike Modano and Justin Abdelkader, matched the production the Wings got out of their third line during the first nine games of the season.

"That's huge for us, and obviously Mo going is a key for us," Babcock said. "Mo, because he's come into a new situation, we feel so strongly about getting him as confident as early as he possibly can just because that's going to help us out big time to say the least. We think he has a chance to be really solid for us and the quicker he gets going the better off we're going to be."

Abdelkader has played on that line in each of the last two games and could very well be there again Friday in Edmonton, but Babcock has no plans to keep Hudler on the sidelines even though he's struggled in his return to the NHL.

Hudler, who spent last season in the KHL, has only 3 assists and a team-worst minus-6 rating in eight games. He'll play Friday if Johan Franzen, who took a maintenance day Thursday, can't go. If Franzen is OK, then Babcock will have to make a decision at some point before game time.

"We're going to get (Hudler) back in the lineup as quickly as we can," Babcock said. "He got scratched, but I mean, it could have been other guys, too. It happened that way and then I went with the same lineup (Wednesday). I have no plans in Jiri Hudler sitting out all the time. He's an elite player and I have to get him back in the lineup, figure out a way to do it."

Regarding Franzen, who has a nagging hip flexor injury, Babcock simply said they'll be careful with him because they don't want something small to turn into something big.

"We want to be smart about what we do," Babcock said.

Now let's go around the conference and see what's happening. The teams are listed in order of their standing:

 Los Angeles Kings (9-3-0, 18 points)

The Kings got star defenseman Drew Doughty back for Thursday's game against Tampa Bay after he sat out six games with a concussion. The Kings went 4-2-0 in his absence and beat the Lightning 1-0 in his first game back. Scott Parse also returned from a groin injury he suffered in the preseason -- so for the first time this season, the Kings fielded a completely healthy roster Thursday night. Ryan Smyth is due to play in his 1,000th game Saturday against Nashville.

 St. Louis Blues (7-1-2, 16 points)

Jaroslav Halak registered his third shutout in the last four games Thursday by making 25 saves in a 2-0 win over San Jose. The Blues have won five straight and have given up only five goals in the process. Matt D'Agostini and David Perron each scored their fifth goals of the season in Thursday's win. Perron got his after taking an elbow to the head from Joe Thornton. The Blues have won a franchise-best 12 games in a row at home dating back to last season.

 Vancouver Canucks (7-3-2, 16 points)

The Canucks have won five straight, allowing only eight goals in the process. That includes just the one that Cory Schneider gave up in a 3-1 win at Colorado on Thursday. Schneider hasn't given up more than one goal in any of his three starts. Raffi Torres is on a remarkable tear with 5 goals in his last three games, including a hat trick in Tuesday's win at Edmonton. Keith Ballard and Alex Burrows returned to the lineup this week.

 Columbus Blue Jackets (8-4-0, 16 points)

Mathieu Garon picked up his second straight shutout Thursday, this time in a 3-0 whitewashing of the Thrashers in Atlanta. He has a shutout streak of 133 minutes and 54 seconds. Garon also blanked Montreal 3-0 on Tuesday. After a slow start, captain Rick Nash has points in the last three games (1-2-3). Derick Brassard has goals in three straight games and points in six straight (5-2-7).

 Detroit Red Wings (7-2-1, 15 points)

The Red Wings continue their Western swing Friday in Edmonton. They won 2-1 in Calgary on Thursday on goals by Mike Modano and Justin Abdelkader. Jiri Hudler was a healthy scratch for the second straight game. Babcock hinted that Hudler will get back in the lineup soon, but Abdelkader, his replacement, scored Wednesday and the Wings are 2-0 without Hudler. Johan Franzen is questionable for Friday's game in Edmonton due to a nagging hip flexor injury.

 Chicago Blackhawks (7-7-1, 15 points)

Inconsistency has plagued the Hawks -- hence the .500 record. They've lost two straight after winning two of three. The top guys are producing, but Patrick Sharp (team-high 10 goals and 16 points) is also minus-10. Patrick Kane (12 points) is minus-7. Duncan Keith (team-high 11 assists) is minus-4. They play a lot of their former teammates Saturday in Atlanta.

 Dallas Stars (7-4-0, 14 points)

The Stars are hoping to close out their season-high six-game homestand with their third straight win Friday against Phoenix. What started out so poorly (losses to Nashville, Anaheim and L.A. by a combined 11-4) has turned out to be OK after a 4-0 win over Buffalo and a 5-2 victory over Pittsburgh. A win Friday is huge because seven of their next 11 games are on the road.

 Nashville Predators (5-3-3, 13 points)

The Predators were the last NHL team to lose in regulation this season, but now they've lost three straight and have fallen into last place in the Central Division. The losses have been atypical of this team as they have given up 12 goals in the three games, including a five-spot to Detroit and four at Phoenix on Wednesday. They gave up a pair of third-period power-play goals to the Coyotes, who were 28th in the League on the PP entering the game.

 Colorado Avalanche (6-5-1, 13 points)

The Avs had been scoring in bunches until Thursday's loss at Vancouver. They had scored 18 goals over their previous four games. Goalie Craig Anderson remains out with a knee injury and Peter Budaj has had his problems, but he appears to be getting comfortable as a No. 1. Budaj made 33 saves in a 5-1 win over Columbus last Saturday and 33 more in the 3-1 loss to the Canucks on Thursday.

 Minnesota Wild (5-4-2, 12 points)

The Wild have points in three of their last four games (2-1-1) and have just six goals in the process. That tells you how sharp Niklas Backstrom has been. Backstrom, who picked up his first shutout of the season by beating San Jose 1-0 on Tuesday, hasn't allowed more than two goals in a game since Oct. 16 -- a stretch of six in a row. He's allowed three or more only twice this season. Guillaume Latendresse was put on IR with a groin injury.

 Calgary Flames (6-6-0, 12 points)

The Flames were better Wednesday, but still not good enough. They've lost three in a row, all at home, and they start a four-game road trip Friday in Minnesota. Calgary has had the lead after the first period in seven straight games, but has won only three of them. The Flames are 4-4 in games when they've scored the first goal. Both of the Wings' goals Wednesday came off odd-man rushes.

 San Jose Sharks (5-5-1, 11 points)

Sharks captain Joe Thornton picked up a five-minute major and a game misconduct for elbowing Blues' forward David Perron in the head Thursday night. It's possible that Thornton will also face supplementary discipline from the League, though that's only speculation as of now. What we do know is that the Sharks have been shut out in back-to-back games despite getting decent goaltending. They've been shut out three straight times on the road, a franchise first.

 Phoenix Coyotes (4-4-3, 11 points)

Ed Jovanovski on Wednesday became the first defenseman in franchise history to record a hat trick. It doesn't cure the scoring woes of Phoenix's forwards. Lee Stempniak scored his team-high fourth goal Wednesday, but the first since his hat trick on Oct. 21. Phoenix was 23rd in scoring entering Thursday's action (2.46 goals per game).

 Anaheim Ducks (5-7-1, 11 points)

The Ducks opened a three-game homestand by beating Tampa Bay 3-2 in overtime. Anaheim hosts Pittsburgh and Nashville this weekend. It also plays at home next week against the Islanders and Stars. The Ducks have a chance with all these home games to make up some ground. They are 3-1-1 at home but only 2-6 on the road.

 Edmonton Oilers (3-5-2, 8 points)

The Oilers had points in three straight games before falling 4-3 to Vancouver on Tuesday. The learning continues Friday with Detroit in town and a second trip to Chicago on the docket for Sunday. The visit to the United Center starts a five-game road trip that includes games in New York City and Newark, N.J. It also marks Renney's return to Madison Square Garden. He was the Rangers' coach from 2004-09 and worked for the organization for nine seasons.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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