– After a long, tough year, Andreas Lilja is finally set to return to the Red Wings’ lineup when the team resumes the NHL schedule against the Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center.
Lilja last played nearly a year ago – Feb. 28 – when a fight with Nashville’s Shea Weber sidelined the Wings’ defenseman with concussion-like symptoms. After 12 months of recurring headaches, he has been symptom-free long enough for team doctors to clear him to play.
“I’m really, really excited. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Lilja said after Thursday’s practice at Joe Louis Arena. “It’s going to be an unbelievable feeling just stepping out on the ice Monday and actually playing for some points again. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Earlier this month, Lilja was assigned to the Wings’ AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids for a four-game conditioning stint. He’s been itching to get back on the ice with his teammates and is ecstatic to finally return to NHL action.
He credits the camaraderie of being able to practice and travel with the team as a big factor in ensuring his readiness to play, saying “Hockey’s my life, I love to do it. Just being around it, being able to practice and skating around with the guys, having fun. That was a huge advantage.”
To make room for Lilja’s return, the Wings had to clear some space under the salary cap. On Wednesday, the Wings announced that they were placing Kirk Maltby on the long-term injured reserve list. The veteran forward expects to have season-ending shoulder surgery next week, thus clearing enough room under the cap for Lilja’s return.
The Wings began planning for Lilja’s return earlier this month when they parted with veteran enforcer Brad May, who was put on waivers on Feb. 12. May cleared waivers and will report to the Griffins next week.
Maltby had hoped that he could postpone surgery on his right shoulder until after the season, but the chronic pain, coupled with the team’s needs, made his decision easy.
“I’ve been playing with it all year,” he said, “but now the club is getting healthier and that made [the surgery] an easier decision to do now.”
Maltby said he’s been suffering from arthritis in the ball and AC joints, along with small tears in his labrum. The expected recovery time is 4-6 weeks, which may allow him to return in time for the playoffs. The salary-cap isn’t in effect once the playoffs begin, meaning players can be added to the roster.
Lilja’s physical presence (6-3, 230-pounds) will give the blue line a boost for a team fighting for every point in the Western Conference playoff race. While he doesn’t score a lot of points (13 points in 60 games last season), it’s his steadiness as a stay-at-home defender – blocking shots and killing penalties – that the Wings sorely miss.
He plans to be the same physical player he was before his injury, saying he can’t let the psychological aspect of a head injury get to him.
“You can’t think like that,” he said. “If I’m going out there not to get hit or not to hit people, then I’m no use out there, so I might as well not play.”
Lilja’s return coupled with Niklas Kronwall
’s recovery from an injured knee means the Wings will finally be playing with a fully healthy defensive group. Although Lilja doesn’t know who he’ll be partnered with on Monday, he’s excited to see the pairings that coach Mike Babcock will put together.
“It makes it better because then we’re going to have rivalry over the spots,” Lilja said. “I think that makes the team better.”