DETROIT – The Red Wings welcome another player back from injury tonight when defenseman Jonathan Ericsson makes his return to the lineup just in time for the Wednesday rivalry matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I’m really excited,” Ericsson said. “I know it’s been a long wait, I’ve done this before too so it’s going to be nice to be back.”
It was news that had everyone in the Wings’ dressing room smiling upon hearing of the defenseman’s return.
“He’s back tonight? That’s awesome,” center Darren Helm said. “I didn’t know that, that’s great. He’s a big part of the team. He’s a big, strong, puck-moving D, he just adds to the team and happy to see him getting back.”
Ericsson has missed Detroit’s last 10 games with fractured ribs sustained in a 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders on Dec. 23. But despite how difficult it was to watch his team compete from the sidelines, Ericsson understood the importance of returning 100 percent healthy versus rushing his recovery and facing future setbacks.
“I wanted kind of to play for a while but on the other hand I don’t want to get back too early and get injured again,” he said. “So I kind of had to listen to the trainers and doctors too so I felt like I’m ready like to skate ready there for a while but it’s the big thing is going to be healed up enough. And they said I’m cleared so hopefully they’re right.”
Coach Mike Babcock hopes so, too.
“He’s a good player, big body,” Babcock said. “He can really help out (Niklas) Kronwall. We’re really going to need him here tonight.”
Ericsson will pick up right where he left off, skating on the top defensive pairing with Kronwall in the Original Six matchup. In Ericsson’s absence, Brendan Smith was paired with Kronwall, and knows how much his teammate’s return will help Detroit defensively.
“I think it’s going to help our D corps,” Smith said. “He’s such a big body and he helps out physically and he wins puck battles and he gets the puck out so he’s definitely somebody that will help our D core a lot. Him and Kronwall play great together and they’re a real good shutdown on the first line. It’s a big guy to have back and whenever you get an injured guy back in the lineup it’s always great.”
The defenseman is the second player to return from injury this week, as Helm came back from a groin injury on Monday.
“Getting Helmer and Big E, it’s a blessing,” Smith said.
While Ericsson will do everything in his power to help Detroit to a victory Wednesday, it will take a few games for the defenseman to get his lungs back up to par.
“For me right now it’s a matter of coming back and try to help the team as best as I can but also getting in shape as fast as possible, game shape,” Ericsson said. “So it’s going to take a few games probably but we need all the bodies we can get back here and hopefully we can get back on track.”
Detroit will have an opportunity to do just that against the Blackhawks, a team that enters The Joe with the league’s second-best record (32-8-11). The history between the two clubs dates back to the Original Six and years of meetings in the Western Conference, but Babcock doesn’t think the Red Wings have lived up to the rivalry’s standard this season.
“I don’t think we’re holding up our end of the bargain,” Babcock said. “Rivalry is when two teams really get after one another. I thought we did last year in the playoffs. We haven’t been a good enough team this year to consider this a rivalry type game, but in the past we know what that is and we’ve had a good run with them.
“We used to be where they are and now they are where we were.”
Although it will be a tough battle against a top-ranked opponent, there are plenty of players in Detroit’s dressing room that are looking forward to a rematch with the defending Stanley Cup champion that knocked them out of the playoffs last spring.
“I think we’re all pretty excited to be playing Chicago,” Smith said. “As a group, we want a little redemption as well, because they took us in Game 7. I think this will be a hard two teams to end a rivalry like this, because it has been so great. The fans have been behind both teams so much. It’s definitely one you look forward to, and I’m sure they do, too. It would be a tough one to sweep under the mat because of how great the organizations are and how each team has done so well in the past few seasons.”
GAME 7 REMEMBERED: The last time Chicago and Detroit faced each other was in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals in the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Red Wings had a 3-1 series lead, but the Blackhawks rallied to force Game 7 and were eventually crowned Stanley Cup champions.
It was a game that was difficult for Smith to forget.
“We played really well,” Smith said. “I thought we could have wrapped it up, but they’re a great team and obviously they won. There’s a reason why they were able to beat us, because they were the best. We want to come out and prove something, just maybe get redemption. For sure we want to come out and play our best.”
INJURY UPDATE: Although center Pavel Datsyuk participated in Detroit’s practices on Tuesday and Wednesday, there is no timetable for the Russian star’s return. Datsyuk did say that he would be 100 percent ready for the Olympics, though.
“Yeah, I can skate now,” Datsyuk said. “Before I can’t skate. It’s much better now. Looking forward to skate tomorrow and it’s day by day.”
Forwards Daniel Alfredsson (back spasms) and Johan Franzen (head) also participated in Wednesday’s morning skate, while center Stephen Weiss (sports hernia) skated for a short amount of time before practice began.
Forward Cory Emmerton will be out of the lineup due to a broken pinky sustained in Monday’s 4-1 loss to the Blues.
To make room for Ericsson’s return to the lineup, defenseman Jakub Kindl will be a healthy scratch against Chicago.
Follow Andrea Nelson on Twitter @Nelson_Andrea