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Mule is comfortable in the middle

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Justin Abdelkader (right) celebrates with Johan Franzen after he scored the game-winning goal at Colorado last Thursday. (Photo by Getty Images)

DETROIT Johan Franzen hopes a position change will help jumpstart his offensive productivity.

Playing a hunch, and hoping to get all four forward lines involved in the offense, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock took Franzen off the wing this week, moving him to the two hole on the second line between Todd Bertuzzi and Daniel Alfredssson.

“When the Mule skates, he’s a real dominant player for us,” Babcock said. “The Mule came here as a checking center and found out he could really score. I thought he gave us a good 1-2 punch the last game and I thought (the third line of) Weiss and Cleary and Tatar played well as well.”

Franzen will play his second straight game in the two hole when the Red Wings host the Ottawa Senators at Joe Louis Arena tonight. He centered the second line in Monday’s 1-0 shootout loss to San Jose. But it was his face-off challenges against the Sharks’ Joe Thornton that created some confidence for the Mule.

“It was a little bit weird before the game when they said I was going to be center and play the hottest team in the league,” Franzen said of San Jose. “Oh, it could be bad, but it was a good first game.”

Franzen led the Red Wings’ centermen winning 58 percent (14-of-24) of his face-offs against the Sharks, including 7-of-12 against Thornton.

Franzen has only taken 27 draws this season, but his 55.6 winning percentage in the circle is the Wings’ highest success rate among their top centermen.

“I was a center for my whole time growing up, and on and off, played it here, so I like it,” Franzen said. “I’m pretty comfortable with it.”

Throughout his European career, Franzen gained a reputation as a dominating physical center with exceptional puck-handling skills and a sneaky hard slap shot. That’s what the Red Wings loved about him when he arrived in Detroit in 2005, and why Babcock kept the Mule in the three hole where he could contribute in a checking role.

He was a solid face-off man, but then his offensive fortunes and he was moved to the wing where he became more of a scorer during the Red Wings’ two runs to the Stanley Cup finals. He established a new Red Wings’ record for game-winning goals for a month when he produced six of them in March 2008.

Even with the added defensive responsibilities that the center position has, Franzen said he’s content with his new role.

“You do a little more work as a center,” he said. “Play down low more, but still you’re a little bit more involved. You get more choices when you get the puck other than when you’re a winger and get stuck at the boards.

“We should be a good line and we hope to get something done here tonight.”

GAME-TIME DECISION: Nikls Kronwall was cleared to return to the lineup on Tuesday after missing two games with a concussion sustained last Thursday in Colorado.

However, the Red Wings’ defenseman is now a game-time decision against the Senators after he was struck in the face by a puck at Wednesday’s morning skate.

Kronwall had an appointment to see a dentist in the afternoon for the damage that was done to his mouth and teeth.

The puck shot by a teammate, rolled up Kronwall’s stick then hit him in the mouth. “The puck came off my blade,” he said.

In the meantime, the Red Wings recalled rookie defenseman Xavier Ouellet as a precaution in case Kronwall isn’t well enough to play. Ouellet made his NHL debut on Monday.

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose

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