DETROIT – Stick with it.
That was the message Stephen Weiss received from coach Mike Babcock prior to the Red Wings’ season opener more than a week ago.
“It’s huge, anytime the leader of the team, or the coach or GM, or whoever it is, even your teammates are positive with you and tell you to hang in there and keep doing what you’re doing and working hard and you’ll get your chance is huge,” Weiss said. “It gave me a lot of jump over the last week in practice. I felt that I’ve been practicing well, just needed a chance in games and it will come.”
The veteran center has waited and worked hard for his chance to return to the Red Wings’ lineup since coming back from a problematic sports hernia. His time came Saturday when Detroit hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second game of a home-and-home series on consecutive nights.
Johan Franzen was unavailable one night after leaving midway through the second period of Friday’s game at Air Canada Centre with leg cramps. Mule skated in Saturday’s pregame warm-up, but sat out the game.
Weiss, who was a healthy scratch for the first four games, skated on a wing with center Darren Helm and rookie forward Andrej Nestrasil. Justin Abdelkader moved up from the third line to take Franzen’s spot on Henrik Zetterberg’s line with Gustav Nyquist.
For the first time in 12 NHL seasons, Weiss didn’t occupy his traditional spot in the middle of the ice during a game.
“I’ve never played left wing in my life so that’s tough, trying to figure out the system as a winger,” he said. “All of that stuff is tough. It was fun to be back in the mix, playing again in a game and hopefully we can do more here coming up.”
It certainly helps Weiss’s confidence that the Red Wings managed to come away from a very physical battle against their Atlantic Division rivals with a 1-0 overtime victory.
“It felt awesome,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun than watching games for sure. It felt pretty good too, not knowing whether I would play or not. All day was tough but I got the word after warm-up that I was in and I was really excited to play and be back. It’s even better with a big win.”
Weiss had the team’s lowest ice-time totals in the first period (3:34), though more than 55 percent of his time came on the Red Wings’ top power-play unit – with Zetterberg, Helm, Nyquist and Niklas Kronwall – which was busy with three chances in the period.
“It was nice to get a couple of looks on the PP early,” Weiss said. “It was nice to be back in the mix and feel the puck a little bit in those types of situations. It’s been a while but hopefully keep practicing well and sneak my way into the lineup a few more times.”
The Wings had two more power-play opportunities – one each in the second and third periods – but Weiss didn’t see the ice on either chance. He finished with 8:03 of ice time on 12 shifts, but just one shift after the second period.
“He got an opportunity to play in a game,” coach Mike Babcock said. “He didn’t get a ton of opportunity but at least he got in the game and got some action going. When you’ve missed as much hockey as him it’s going to take you some time. But we’re happy with him. We think he’s going in the right direction. We think his attitude is great and we think he’s working hard.”
Weiss played in six preseason games, but Saturday was his first meaningful NHL action in 312 days. He last appeared in the Wings’ lineup Dec. 10 at Florida. Two weeks later he underwent the first of two surgeries to fix a sports hernia that had bothered him since the start of last season.
The hernia held Weiss to 26 games in the first season of a five-year contract worth $24.5 million that he signed as a free agent following the lockout-shortened season in 2013.
“To play without pain is really nice,” Weiss said. “The league is hard enough when you’re healthy and when you’re struggling with an injury it’s even harder. So it feels good to be healthy.”
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