DETROIT — Justin Abdelkader’s emergence this season came as no surprise to Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who originally took notice of the 23-goal scorer during their days in the Michigan high school hockey circles.
Cooper was the coach at Lansing Catholic Central in 1998-99 where he led the Cougars to their first regional championship in 25 years. Five seasons later, Abdelkader led Muskegon Mona Shores to the Division 2 state title game while earning the state's Mr. Hockey award as a junior.
Cooper hopes his familiarity with Abdelkader’s game will pay off as the Red Wings forward is slated to make his series debut against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference first-round series tonight.
“I knew him back when he was playing at Mona Shores and did the same thing then,” Cooper said. “He’s earned his way into this league, he deserves to be here and now he’s a good player in the league. I think it’s going to help them for sure but I don’t think it changes our approach, we just have to be aware when he’s on the ice.”
While the two schools were separated by more than 100 miles and neither Cooper or Abdelkader were on the high school hockey circuit at the same time, the Lightning coach was well-aware of the forward’s potential even as a teenager.
“I think Abdelkader, for me he doesn’t get near enough press he should,” Cooper said. “I think he could be the straw that stirs the drink for them in a lot of ways. I’ve admired him as a player for a long time.”
Abdelkader is set to make his series after missing the last six games with a hand injury. A return to the lineup and change in the team’s makeup could provide the Wings with a much-needed boost as the best-of-7 series comes to Detroit for the first time.
Also making his series debut is defenseman Brendan Smith, who has been a healthy scratch for the last three contests.
While the additions of Abdelkader and Smith are the first significant roster changes made by either team in this series, Cooper said the plan would stay the same for his team in Game 3.
“It doesn’t change our approach,” Cooper said. “I think it changes Detroit’s approach a little bit. Both those guys, they compete hard, they play physical. I think that’s one of the aspects we’ve tried to solidify in our first two games and one thing we haven’t had in the past is to play a little bit nasty and establish that physical game which I think we’ve done. Those are two guys for them that have that in them.”
Cooper knows what to expect of Abdelkader, given their extensive history but the Wings being able to add another big body to the forward line rotation may present more challenges for the Lightning defense.
“He’s a good player no doubt about it,” defenseman Anton Stralman said. “He plays physical, does all the hard work and at the same time he can score goals too from what I understand. I haven’t looked at it that much but he’s having a really good year, for sure feeling good about his game and playing with a lot of confidence and all that. He’s a player that we have to watch out for obviously, they have a lot of those guys, doesn’t really change anything from my perspective.”
After setting career highs in goals (23), assists (21), points (44) and power-play goals (eight), Abdelkader’s return could generate more production for a team that was limited to just one goal on 24 shots and a power play that went 0-for-4 in Game 2.
At Joe Louis Arena for the first time with new faces in the lineup, Game 3 could be very different for both teams looking to take an important 2-1 lead in the series.
“We have to play our game, can’t worry too much about what’s gonna happen out there tonight with the crowd and all that,” Stralman said. “They’re going to have a strong game, that’s the bottom line. They always play well in here and it’s gonna be the toughest game so far. We just have to match it. We have to play to our structures, make sure we match their physicality. They’ve got a couple guys that’s back in the lineup that adds a little bit of a physical force in their lineup. I think we’re fine with that, we’ll match that and play our game.”