DETROIT – It’s been one heck of a rocky road for Darren Helm.
But finally the Red Wings’ speedy third-line center gets to play in his first Stanley Cup playoff game in more than two years when the puck drops Friday in the first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins.
“Missed these two years, it wasn’t easy for myself to miss those playoff runs, especially last year, which was really exciting to watch,” Helm said. “Seeing what the guys did and almost what they accomplished there with the young guys and how exciting it was. Now I got the chance again to get into this lineup with this younger team that we have, exciting team, and I’m looking forward to it.”
The 27-year-old Helm is anxious to get back to the playoffs for the first time since April 11, 2012, which is when he was sliced open by a skate blade during his fifth shift of Game 1 against Nashville in their opening-round series.
Gushing blood from his right forearm, Helm was immediately taken by ambulance to nearby Vanderbilt University Medical Center where he underwent emergency surgery that evening to repair damaged tendons cause by Alexander Radulov’s skate blade.
“That was my last playoff game,” Helm said. “I spent the one night (in the hospital) and I was out the next morning at 8 a.m. But two hours of surgery, luckily I didn’t have to think too much about that one because I was under. Luckily they had an unbelievable hand doctor there and put me back together and I owe a lot to him. Really thankful for what he did.”
Last year, Helm was limited to one regular-season game as he recovered from a bulging disk in his lower back, which he first suffered while lifting weights prior last season’s NHL lockout shortened season. He attempted a comeback late in the season as the team made a push toward the playoffs but he experienced one setback after another.
“The Nashville one was bad, mentally it wasn’t too bad,” Helm said. “It was my first major injury that I’ve had. The back last year was probably more frustrating because there were so many ups and downs, there were so many turns when I thought I was coming back and didn’t. That was probably the most mentally challenged I’ve felt in the hockey world. So it was tough and it’s all in the past now.”
When healthy, Helm can be as an explosive a skater as there is the league. He plays with a high-revving engine, which he uses to the Wings’ advantage on the forecheck to combat opposing teams in transition.
“He’s going to be extremely important, especially with his speed on the penalty kill, getting up ice, disrupting power plays,” Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard said. “Just his speed is dangerous enough, so having him in the lineup just makes our top forward lines that much stronger.
“Whether he’s breaking out or back-checking he uses his speed to his advantage. He can flat out fly, with or without the puck. With a team as big as Boston it’s going to be a key.”
Helm produced 12 goals and 20 points with a plus-2 rating in 42 regular-season games.
In Wednesday’s practice at Joe Louis Arena, coach Mike Babcock had Helm center the second line with veterans Johan Franzen and Daniel Alfredsson on the wings.
“Helmer is a huge part of our team and can be a very, very special player,” Babcock said. “With his speed and his tenacity, he’s gotta play a simple game and go out there and help us out.”
ADDED REST: The Red Wings finished up a frenetic Olympic-year schedule playing their final 24 games in 47 days, so getting just the fourth four-day break since early October is quite a luxury for some of the players as they prepare for Friday’s Game 1 in Boston.
“It’s a little weird not playing,” Red Wings forward Gustav Nyquist said. “It’s been such a hectic schedule and then we’re not playing. But it’s been fun. It’s been a race down to the end to get a playoff spot. We’ve been in playoff hockey mode here for a month it feels like. It’s nice to regroup here and go through your system and really get freshened up here for a big series.”
PICK AND CHOOSE: The Red Wings don’t want to get into a physical battle with the Bruins’ defensemen, who, with the exception of Livonia native Torey Krug (5-foot-9, 181 pounds) goes at an average of 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds per man.
“Their whole lineup seems like every single guy is over 6-foot, 200 pounds or close to it and can skate,” Howard said. “We’re going to have to cut guys off and not allow them to get on top of our defensemen.
“They have guys that like to get in there. Seems like after every whistle, from highlights I’ve seen, there’s a scrum. We just have to make sure to play whistle to whistle and not get into any of that stuff.”
The Wings should be able to use their speed as an advantage in this series, at least that's what Nyquist is hoping.
“We’re a pretty speedy team and that’s been in our game plan to use our speed,” Nyquist said. “Of course that’s something we’re going to try to use. They can skate as well. They’re probably a little bit bigger as a team than us, so we’ll try to (out) skate them as much as possible.”
COMPLETE WINGS: Following Wednesday’s practice, a local reporter asked Babcock to list areas that the Wings’ coach believes his team is better than the Bruins.
“I think we’re complete,” Babcock said. “I think we’re way better than people think. I think we’re a hard out.”
Not satisfied, the reporter asked the coach if he would elaborate, to which he provided a one-word answer.
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