DETROIT – The Red Wings hope that the return of Justin Abdelkader will create road blocks for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
A hand injury kept Abdelkader out of the past six games, including the first two of the best-of-7 Eastern Conference first-round series played at Tampa’s Amalie Arena, where the absence of the 28-year-old was certainly missed.
‘It’s nice to get a good day of practice in, nice to have that extra day between games,” Abdelkader said. “Yeah it’s a lot better. It’s come a long ways and I’m feeling really good.”
With the series tied at 1-1 and moving to Detroit for Game 3 on Tuesday, the Wings can use Abdelkader’s big, physical presence to create a second scoring line against the Lightning. Home ice also helps the Wings, who will have luxury of sending last-second line changes out against Lightning lines centered by Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Cedric Paquette and Brian Boyle.
With Abdelkader back in the fold, coach Mike Babcock said he’ll split up Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk – thus neutralizing the effectiveness of Killorn’s line with Steve Stamkos and Ryan Callahan – while providing third- and fourth-line centers Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening with more favorable matchups.
“I just felt Callahan, Killorn and Stamkos, to me,” Babcock said, “got a free ride in their building just for the fact that Johnson was playing against Pav or we had Glennie against them and they were trying hard to keep Glennie away from guys so Stamkos played against Sheahan and to me that didn’t work out very good for us. It was too much free ice.”
Abdelkader gives Zetterberg and forward Gustav Nyquist a hard working winger, who won’t back down, which is especially critical in the playoffs.
“Suddenly it looks we’ll have two lines offensively because to me we’ve had Pav’s line and Glendening’s line. Period. That’s not enough. You need more,” Babcock said. “All you have to do is watch the other series. The fourth lines and the competitive guys are scoring goals every night. Well why is that? Because they’re not on the outside, they’re on the inside. They’re getting there. That’s where you’ve got to go. So all those goals you’ve scored from the outside during the regular season aren’t going in.”
Meanwhile, it’s expected that Datsyuk, who scored twice in the Wings’ 3-2 win in the series opener, will be flanked by Tomas Tatar and Darren Helm. Tatar scored the Wings’ lone goal in Saturday’s 5-1 loss.
“Putting Z back in the middle and giving him a winger, a guy that can skate and work for them helps,” Babcock said. “Abby’s a big body. He’s an everydayer. He competes hard like Helm.”
The postseason brings a grittier, more physical nature to the game, which isn’t usually part of the regular season, though it’s a style that fits Abdelkader, who excelled on the inside all season.
“My game’s really suited for the playoffs and hopefully I can help the team out,” said Abdelkader, who finished the regular season with 23 goals and 44 points in 71 games. “Be physical, be on the forecheck, be around the net and just watching the last two games it’s been tough. I’m itching to get out there and I’m excited.”
Abdelkader’s return can certainly bolster the power play that is 1-for-7 in the series. The veteran forward produced a career-high eight power-play goals, tied for third on the team in the regular season.
“Abby’s a competitor,” Babcock said. “He’s a guy that’s good at the net. He plays hard. He competes hard. I’m sure he’ll be ready to go.”
The challenge of playing net-front on the power player, Abdelkader said, is getting in the way of the Lightning’s Ben Bishop and not letting the 6-foot-7 goalie have clear sight lines of the shooting lanes.
“Sometimes he can look over you but he has a tendency to get crouched down a little bit,” Abdelakder said. “He’ll try to look over but at the same time if he can’t see shots, he can’t recover. As much as I can or as much as we can not only on the power play but on 5 on 5 just try to make it hard on him, make him fight for that space in the blue paint and make it hard for him to try and track pucks.”
MORE O-ZONE TIME: The Wings had difficulty getting pucks out of their own end and through the neutral zone in Game 2. That inability to move the puck is something that needs to be rectified before Game 3 Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena.
“Turnovers have been hurting us a little bit and getting the puck in at their blue line and getting it out at our blue line,” Sheahan said. “I think once we get the puck in their end we can work on their D down low and use our bodies.”
HOME ADVANTAGE: The Wings are looking forward to the series shifting to the friendly confines of Joe Louis Arena this week.
“It’s the best place to play in the playoffs, in front of your home fans,” Zetterberg said. “It’s loud. The energy is high. This is what you look forward to, playoff hockey at Joe Louis.”
Unfortunately, since the Red Wings last reach the Stanley Cup finals, they have posted a 10-10 postseason record on home ice in the past eight playoff series. In that same time, Detroit is 12-17 in road playoff games.
SILENCING STAMKOS: The Wings have managed to silence one of the league’s most dynamic scorers, shutting down Stamkos so far through two playoff games.
While the Lightning’s sensational forward has a series-high nine shots on goal, the Wings have kept off the scoreboard now for three straight games, including the final regular-season meeting between these two teams on March 28 in Detroit.
“The goals are so far going from really short distances. Steven is a good shooter but we so far have found our lanes to block his shots from the blue line,” Tatar said. “I think we are doing a really good job. Our PK first game was tremendous. Second game we didn’t really help them with our power play. … We are doing a pretty good job on Stamkos so far and hopefully it stays that way.”
McLELLEN, SHARKS PART: The San Jose Sharks announced Monday that they and coach Todd McLellen have agreed to part ways after seven seasons. The former Red Wings’ assistant had one year remaining on his contract with the Sharks.
McLellen, 47, will coach Team Canada at the World Championships next month in the Czech Republic. He was an assistant for the first three seasons on Babcock’s coaching staff in Detroit.
“Someone’s is going to get a good coach,” Babcock said. “Good for the opportunity. Todd and I are good friends. He’s a good man. He’s a good coach. It’s good for him and Canada he gets a chance to coach at the World Championships. They have themselves a good coach there. Then he’ll get to pick and choose where he wants to go and make the best decision for himself and his family. … He treats people right. He knows the game. He’s an honest hard working guy. He’ll work in the league as long as he wants. He’s an upper echelon coach.”
McLellen’s tenture with the Sharks was the third-longest in the NHL behind Boston’s Claude Julien (eight seasons) and Babcock (10 seasons).