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Big Play Kronwall

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
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DETROIT – This week coach Mike Babcock heaped some pretty big praise on a Red Wings’ defenseman whose name isn’t Nicklas Lidstrom or Brian Rafalski.

While Lidstrom and Rafalski continue to be topflight NHL defensemen, it was Niklas Kronwall who received acclamation from the Wings’ coach for his work in the Western Conference quarterfinals.

“Obviously, Lidstrom and Rafalski are elite league players,” Babcock said, “but Kronwall’s the guy in our organization who has to come to the forefront here.”

For a guy whose name is often used in hockey circles as a verb – as in the Kronwalled hits that Wings’ fans have come to expect – the 30-year-old defenseman had a far greater scope in the team’s four-game series sweep of the Phoenix Coyotes. Kronwall had three points, which led all Wings’ defensemen, delivered a team-high 13 hits, was a plus-6 and his power play goal late in the second period tied Game 4 at 3.

“He’s capable of playing the most minutes – on power play the penalty-kill or even-strength – and he can be the most active, physical guy, who can really make plays and we think he’s an elite player,” Babcock continued. “He’s a leader on our team. He’s vocal on the bench. He’s an important guy for us.”

Against Phoenix, Kronwall’s importance was in the form of advanced ice-time, which provided the coaching staff the luxury of spreading out minutes usually reserved for Lidstrom and Rafalski. Kronwall led all Wings’ skaters in average ice-time with more then 22-minutes, nearly three minutes more than Lidstrom.

“Obviously, he’s getting older now,” said Rafalski of Kronwall. “He’s been somewhat healthy, which just helps, and he’s getting those experiences in the playoffs that pay off at this time of year.”

In the 2010 playoffs, Kronwall was third among Wings defensemen in minutes played, averaging 23:15 of ice-time. Lidstrom averaged the most at 26:22 followed by Rafalski (23:58). But last week, Kronwall led the way at 22:24, followed by Rafalski (21:19), Brad Stuart (20:50), Jonathan Ericsson (19:36), Lidstrom (19:34) and Ruslan Salei (16:18).

The defensive minutes have been distributed with a purpose, all the while giving Kronwall greater responsibility.

“I think he makes a big difference,” Lidstrom said. “He’s out there killing penalties. He’s on the power play as well, and eating up a lot of minutes. When he was healthy for most of the season, he was great for us. I think he had a great year. After he got back from being out a few games, I thought he just picked it up again, so it’s great to see.”

The decrease in minutes – even 2-3 minutes a game – has been beneficial, particularly for the Wings’ senior defensemen.
“Nick and I don’t have to do penalty-kills, so it helps us be more effective on the power-play,” Rafalski said. “You saw our minutes in that entire first series, everybody was between 18 and 22 minutes every game. That’s what you like because you’re out there fresh every shift. If you get stuck out there for a long shift you don’t have to worry about going back out there in 30-seconds. You can play the other two parts and give yourself time to recover. It makes a huge difference defensively, and it allows us to apply more pressure and get out of our zone much easier.”

As for Kronwall, he was happy to eat up minutes in the first round, which he said will only help keep other defensemen fresh heading into subsequent rounds.

“I think that’s great for everyone moving forward with me, Rafi and Nick to be able to play these big minutes when everything comes down the stretch,” he said. “You know the other teams are going to match the top guys and we’re going to need Nick and Rafi to play the big minutes down the road.”

HANK’S RETURN: For the first time since suffering a knee injury in early April, Henrik Zetterberg practiced in a full contact practice.

If the Western Conference semifinals began this weekend, Zetterberg indicated that he wouldn’t be ready to return to action. However, since the Wings likely have 6-8 days off before the start of Round 2, the Wings’ star forward said he’ll play in Game 1.

“In six days, I’ll absolutely be ready to go,” he said.

The Wings have dealt without their two top scorers from the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs. Johan Franzen, who missed Game 4 in Phoenix, led Detroit with 18 points last spring. Zetterberg was second with 15.

“I feel a lot better. It was basically my first full practice, so I’m on the right way,” Zetterberg said. “It’s good to get these days to get even better, so I’m looking forward to Round 2.”

Asked if he was rooting for the remaining Western Conference quarterfinals to go to seven games, Zetterberg said, “The more games they play, the better for us. But whoever we’re going to face is going to be a tough team, so we have to be at our best to move on.”

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter: @RooseBill

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