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Wings rookie ready for his playoff debut

by Brian Compton /
DETROIT -- Justin Abdelkader had to pinch himself at Joe Louis Arena, just to make sure he wasn't dreaming.

It's no dream, kid. You're in.

The 22-year-old power forward is expected to play in his first NHL postseason game on Sunday night, when he and the Detroit Red Wings host the Anaheim Ducks in Game 5 of their Western Conference semifinal. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound left wing will likely replace Tomas Kopecky, who was injured during a fight with Francois Beauchemin in Game 4. The Wings say he may need surgery.

Abdelkader has just four NHL games on his resume -- two in each of the past two seasons. The former second-round draft pick (2005) had 24 goals, 28 assists and 102 penalty minutes in 76 games for the Grand Rapids Griffins in the American Hockey League in 2008-09.

This is his reward.

"I think this season in Grand Rapids and the playoffs there prepared me for this, so I'm ready," said Abdelkader, who had 6 goals and 2 assists in 10 AHL playoff games. "I was here last year and kind of know how things are run. Obviously the intensity's up in the playoffs, and I think I'll be well prepared going into it."

Abdelkader had better be prepared to play a physical game, because that's what Detroit coach Mike Babcock is expecting. Considering the size and strength at the opposite end of the ice, Abdelkader just might be the injection the Wings need. He's expected to skate on the fourth line with Kirk Maltby and Mikael Samuelsson.

"He played hard and was a team leader down there," Babcock said. "(Grand Rapids coach) Curt Fraser really liked him, and we liked him in exhibition (season). He played hard for us. We think he's the kind of player we need to add to our lineup going ahead here in the future. He plays the game hard. What do expect him to do? We expect him to get on the forecheck and run over people."

That's just fine with Abdelkader, who joined the Red Wings' organization after spending the past three campaigns at Michigan State University. He then landed in Detroit following the completion of last year's collegiate season.

"That's how I played all year in Grand Rapids," Abdelkader said of playing a physical style. "That's how I've been my whole career, so it's not like I've got to change anything up. I think that's the best part about it."

Detroit Red Wings Playoff GearThe 2008-09 season was about adjusting to the professional schedule, which, judging by his numbers, Abdelkader seemed to do with ease. However, he admitted there were some tough times -- like being asked to play three games in as many nights.
"Long bus rides, the late nights and early mornings … the schedule had a lot of 3-in-3's," Abdelkader said. "I know they don't play any up here. It got pretty tough, but I think mentally it makes you that much stronger."

While the flight out to Anaheim after Game 5 will be just another trip to the West Coast for his teammates, it's something Abdelkader will relish after all the miles he logged on the bus this season.

Playing in the NHL does have its perks.

"That won't be too bad," he said, smiling. "I'm excited about that, that's for sure."

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