DETROIT – How much of a boost will Henrik Zetterberg’s return be for his teammates as the Red Wings head into a pivotal Game 4 of the best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoff series against the Boston Bruins?
It’ll likely be off the charts as it could mean the difference between evening the first-round series at two wins apiece or going down 3-1 and facing an elimination game Saturday afternoon in Boston.
“Everybody’s kind of feeling that excitement, too,” Wings center Darren Helm said following the team’s morning skate Thursday. “He’s been out for a while; you can tell he’s extremely happy to be back, we’re all extremely happy that he has a chance to play tonight. It’ll be great if he gets a chance to play.”
The Red Wings can use the offensive spark that a player of Zetterberg’s hockey intelligence can provide. Detroit has managed to score just two goals against Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, who has shut out the Red Wings in the past four periods.
Zetterberg is a sniper, the team’s active leading goal-scorer (55) and point-producer (114) in the playoffs, a leader on and off the ice, and a competitor like no other. He has led Detroit in scoring in four of the past six postseasons, registering 40 goals and 89 points in 83 playoff games during that stretch. He also won the Conn Symthe Trophy as the MVP of the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Before Zetterberg first suffered the back injury in December, he was by far the Red Wings’ most valuable player, producing 11 goals and 30 points in the first 28 games of the season.
“To get Z back is like getting an ace in your deck when you’re playing cards,” defenseman Brendan Smith said. “You saw what last year’s playoffs was like with him, so I suspect it will be very similar. He’s one of the guys we feed off of, he’s a leader, he’s our captain and he does everything right and he plays both ends of the ice.”
While Zetterberg is considered to be a game-time decision, most everyone in the Wings’ dressing room Thursday morning felt that the captain’s return is a foregone conclusion and he’ll be in the lineup when the puck drops tonight at Joe Louis Arena.
The Red Wings played 23 games without Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk in the lineup. Datsyuk has been nursing a sore left knee but returned in the last month of the push to get the Wings into the playoffs for a 23rd straight season. In the duo’s absence, Detroit posted a respectful 11-9-3 record but together they give the Red Wings a menacing dynamic.
“If he’s back that’ll be huge for our squad, it would be awesome,” Smith said. “We’ve done well without him and I think the biggest thing for us right now is for us to play our system and that will help us out a lot more.”
During Thursday’s morning skate, Zetterberg was reunited with Datsyuk and forward Justin Abdelkader on the team’s top forward line.
“He looked great, he’s been looking really good for the last little while and it would be huge boost getting our captain back, kind of unexpectedly,” Abdelkader said. “He’s been feeling good, I think he’s kind of rarin’ to go, it’s just when he gets the clearance.”
By Zetterberg’ estimations his return to the lineup is about 7-10 days sooner than first anticipated as he repeatedly had said that Round 2 was a more realistic target. But there won’t be a Round 2 if the Wings can’t score against the Bruins.
Still, there will be questions about his conditioning and effectiveness; after all, it’s been more than two months since Zetterberg last skated in a game. What are his limitations? And can he jump into the middle of a series against a physical Bruins squad and make a positive difference for his team?
Wednesday, Zetterberg shrugged off queries about the Bruins’ physicality, telling reporters that all playoff series are physical series.
Wings’ players don’t know what to expect either of their captain’s on-ice abilities tonight, they’re just happy to have him back.
“When you’re injured, you’re practicing hard, you’re trying to get ready, you’re in the gym, you do lots of stuff to make sure you’re ready when you get back,” forward Tomas Tatar said. “I know the start can be rough, but at the same time, you can start really hot, too. You’ve just got to go with the wave.”