DETROIT – Now in his sixth full NHL season, Justin Abdelkader is seeking a larger role on the team.
The 27-year-old Muskegon, Mich., native who scored the game-winning goal in Michigan State’s 2007 NCAA national championship, has turned heads with his stellar play in the first month of the season.
Best known for his role with the Red Wings as a grinding, hard-in-the-corners, puck-retrieving forward, Abdelkader’s tenacious brand is paying off in offensive production. He has three goals and five points in the first seven games, which represents the best single-season start in his career.
In the past three seasons it’s taken him 26, 29, and 37 games, respectively, to reach the season goal total that he current stands at.
While he’s played every conceivable spot on the first line to the fourth line, Abdelkader sees this season as his opportunity to, has Wings coach Mike Babcock likes to say, “Grab a bigger piece of the cheese.”
“Just being counted on,” Abdelkader said. “Whether I get an opportunity on the power play or it’s on the penalty kill, being counted on towards the end of games, just become a player that can contribute not only statistically in the points category, but overall, shift by shift and help whether it’s offensive zone possession, being good defensively, being a hard worker, just set an example on the ice.”
Abdelkader certainly made his presence known to the Pittsburgh Penguins, scoring the game-winner in Detroit’s come-from-behind overtime win Thursday at Joe Louis Arena.
“He provides so much energy for our team, he plays and works hard and brings it every day,” forward Gustav Nyquist said Friday afternoon. “He’s a very important player for us and right now he’s playing good and he really deserved that last goal last night.”
Abdelkader believes the long off-season, which included playing for the U.S. in the World Championships, has helped him mature and become a better overall team player, which should be beneficial for the entire team.
“Even last time I went (to the World Championships) in 2012 I came back a different player and I think that’s the same this time around,” he said. “I learned a lot. I think I was counted on as a leader on the team. I feel really good going into the season. Knock on wood I feel healthy after a good summer of training.”
More than 60 percent of the Red Wings’ current roster has played in fewer NHL games than Abdelkader, who has skated in 334 regular-season games since turning pro nearly a year to the day he clinched the national title for the Spartans. Only Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Cleary, Stephen Weiss, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall, Kyle Quincey and Drew Miller have played in more.
Though they’ve lost just one game in regulation, the offensive production hasn’t been there for the Red Wings this season, which makes contributions from players like Abdelkader who lighten the load for Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Nyquist.
“It’s a team game and everybody tries to do their job,” Nyquist said. “We haven’t really been scoring as much as we want to, but of course we can’t rely on Z and Pav all of the time. So it’s great to see other guys stepping up and scoring some goals.”
Kronwall agrees, but also points to Abdelkader’s versatility as keys for his hot start to the season.
“Abby has been huge for us whether he scores or not, he’s always providing a lot of work ethic and his physical play,” Kronwall said. “He’s one of those guys that you love to have on your team, hard to play against for the other team. And of course, you work hard and you get rewarded and that’s what he’s doing right now for us. Good for him and good for us.”
PHILLY BOUND: The Red Wings get another test Saturday when they travel to Philadelphia to take on the Flyers, who own the league’s No. 5 rated power play. Center Claude Giroux and forward Jakub Voracek lead the Flyers’ offense. Each has two goals and nine points in seven games.
“I watched them the other night, I thought they played real well, real solid through the neutral zone,” Babcock said. “Their power play is impressive, they get the puck back. I was really impressed with (Wayne) Simmonds, I thought he had a heck of a game. The (Sean) Couturier line was solid. I didn’t know (Pierre-Edouard) Bellemare, their second line center, I didn’t know who he was but he looks like a good player. They’ve got good depth up front. They look like a real good team, we’ll have our hands full.”
Philadelphia has been regular-season Kryptonite to the Red Wings since 1997, which is the last time a Detroit team has won there. The Wings are winless in their last eight regular-season trips into Philadelphia, where they have been outscored 33-13. Their last road wins in Philly came in Games 1 and 2 of 1997 Stanley Cup finals. Their last regular-season win was a 4-1 decision on Jan. 25, 1997.
Detroit’s all-time regular-season record in the City of Brotherly Love is 13-38-11.
“I don’t think we’ve won in Philly since Christ was a kid,” Babcock joked. “OK, a little after that.”
Goalie - DET
GAA: 0.00 | Sv%: 1.000
Babcock announced Friday that backup goalie Jonas Gustavsson
will get his second start of the season Saturday when the Flyers host the Red Wings at Wells Fargo Center.
Gustavsson made 30 saves in a 1-0 victory over Toronto last Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena.
“When you face a new game it’s going to be a new challenge,” said Gustavsson, who is 0-3-1 lifetime against the Flyers. “I put that behind me and I’m going to go out there and do my best.”
Jimmy Howard, who is 3-1-2 with a 1.95 goals-against average and .929 save percentage, has never played in Philadelphia. Though he should benefit from the extra rest before his next start, which will be in Washington next Wednesday.
Babcock, who was unaware that Howard hasn’t played in Philly, turned to his No. 1 starter in the locker room Friday and said, “Howie, you’re not getting to play in Philly, buddy.”
“I didn’t know that,” Babcock added. “Howie’s never played in Philly, maybe that’s why we never win there.”
STATS PACK: Thursday’s comeback from a multi-goal deficit late in the game was the Red Wings’ second such endeavor in nearly nine years.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Red Wings overcame a similar deficit in the final three minutes of regulation in Chicago on Dec. 23, 2005. In that game, Kris Draper (19:21) and Nicklas Lidstrom (19:53) each scored in the last minute of the third period and Datsyuk potted the game-winner with one second left in overtime of a 3-2 victory over the Blackhawks.