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Yzerman expecting an emotional return to Detroit

by Brian Hedger

Steve Yzerman's name is still on a street sign outside of Joe Louis Arena, and his smiling face resides on a lighted billboard inside on the main concourse.

Detroit Red Wings fans still think of him as "The Captain" for wearing the "C" with the Wings for nearly 20 years, and his cold, competitive stare is still etched into their minds. Yzerman even lives in a Detroit suburb during the off-season with his family -- which lives there year-round while he runs the Tampa Bay Lightning as their general manager.

The connections between Yzerman and Detroit are still numerous, but don't let that fool you into thinking Wednesday night's game between Tampa Bay and Detroit means anything more to him than another chance to earn points in the Eastern Conference.


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Will it be an emotional night for him?

"Depends on what the score is," Yzerman quipped, while meeting with reporters during the Lightning's practice on Tuesday in Troy, Mich. "It could be very emotional."

Technically speaking, this won't be the Red Wings legend's first return to Joe Louis Arena since he became the Lightning's GM on May 25, 2010. He's actually attended some college hockey games there prior to this visit. It will be his first return for an NHL game, however, and he'll probably be shown at some point on the scoreboard's video screen so that fans can give him an ovation.

Still, it would mean more to the ultra-competitive Yzerman to get a victory against his old team.

"We're trying to get points," said Yzerman, whose team is currently sitting outside the top eight in the East by a couple of points. "We're trying to hang in the playoff race. I'm just looking for points, preferably two."

If that seems a little callous, consider that you have to be to some extent in order to succeed as a GM in the NHL. Plus, it's not like he never gets back to the area. Yzerman spent Thanksgiving here with his family and said the tan he's sporting is probably more from the unusually warm weather in Michigan during that visit than the Florida sunshine.

He probably spends a lot of his time in Florida inside, trying to figure out what else his Lightning need get solidly back into the playoff picture and beyond. Tuesday's game against the streaky Red Wings -- who are riding a five-game winning streak -- could give Yzerman a better idea of how his team truly stacks up with the upper-echelon teams.

This trip back isn't about sentiment for him. It's more about judgment -- mostly of his own team.

"I'm looking at it as I still think the Red Wings are one of the best teams in the League -- in both conferences," Yzerman said. "It's an opportunity for ourselves. We consider ourselves in a battle for a playoff spot and right now we're on the outside looking in. It's an opportunity to assess our team against one of the better teams in the League and some of the best players in the League."

What he'd like to see improve most is Tampa's consistency.

It's a battle that Yzerman is quite familiar with because he went through it as a player in Detroit. Yzerman was the main cog who fronted the effort to turn the Red Wings into one of the NHL's elite franchises on a yearly basis. His goal now is to spearhead that same kind of transformation for the Lightning, only this time from the front office.

"We want to take a step forward," Yzerman said. "We want to be a consistent winner at home and on the road. That's the challenge we face. It's hard to improve. We had a good year last year and we're looking to improve on that. That's our expectation."

That's also proving to be a difficult standard to reach.

"I don't think it's right to consider ourselves as an elite team," Yzerman said of his Lightning. "There are a handful of elite teams, and I consider (us) in the mix with a lot of good teams. There are probably four at the top and we're in the mix with the rest. We've been up and down. We're not there in all parts of our game. We’re working on getting better in all departments. There are a lot of things we're pleased with, but we recognize we have to get a lot better in a lot of areas."

Spoken like "The Captain," of old.
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