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Williams returns to Wings' lineup

by Michael Caples / Detroit Red Wings
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DETROIT – Forward Jason Williams hasn’t played in nearly 3 ½ months, but he’s set to make an immediate offense impact when the Red Wings lineup against Nashville in a Central Division showdown Friday at Joe Louis Arena.

“I haven’t registered a shot in 38 games,” Williams said, “so I’ve got to make up for it.”

Williams, 29, was an anchor on the second power-play unit before sustaining a fractured right fibula on Nov. 7 in Toronto.  Now the Wings are hoping that Williams can bring energy to a lineup that has suffered through 258 man-games lost due to injuries.

“I think it gives our team a boost when you have a guy who’s been out for a couple months, healthy and coming back into the lineup,” Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. “It brings some energy to our team, something that we need too, at this time in the season. So he’s going to help. … he’s going to log some minutes on the power play as well.”

For Williams, he said the lengthy recovery time was mentally difficult to deal with.

“It feels great, just being back on the ice with the guys,” he said. “You enjoy coming to the rink every day and playing the game that you love, and when you can’t do that because of an injury, it sucks, but it’s great to be back in the lineup.”

The native of London, Ontario, has experience returning after a long-term injury. A sports hernia sidelined Williams when he was playing for Chicago, which he said knocked him out for over six weeks.

“It’s tough to get your wind,” Williams said. “Make sure you keep your shifts short, keep things simple, and just try to use your head as much as possible. If you get caught out there long it’s going to cause you problems, so you definitely make sure you’re keeping the shifts short and getting the timing as much as you can.”

Coach Mike Babcock said that he expects Williams to perform well, however, Babcock wouldn’t be surprised if the veteran forward struggles in the first few games.

“Well I just expect him to be good,” Babcock said. “He’s been practicing for a long time. When we bring guys back we expect them to be good, then we usually expect them to fall off the face of the earth the second game back, and then it takes them a couple games to be good. So he should have no trouble tonight, it’s just a matter of sustaining it over time.”

Williams expects to deal with some heightened nerves during his opening shifts.

“You’re excited to play and you haven’t played in a long time,” he said. “Just the excitement of getting back into the game again, you feel a little nervous and getting those jitters, but after the first few shifts, you kind of settle down, and get into a bit of a groove.”

The Wings enter Friday’s game on a three-game losing streak, and Williams said it has been hard to watch.

“It’s always tough watching, but the guys have played very well,” he said. “We’ve been on the wrong end of the game sheet the last couple games, but getting guys back and getting our confidence back, I don’t think it’s any time to push the panic button. We’re fine, and the last games here before the Olympic break will be very key for us.”

ABBIE TO GR: To make room in the lineup for Williams’ return, the Wings sent forward Justin Abdelkader to the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Wings’ American Hockey League affiliate.

Abdelkader recorded three goals and three assists in 50 games with the Wings this season. He led Detroit with 152 hits.

Babcock said it was because of salary cap issues that they had to send the rookie forward down.

“It’s real hard for him, because he thinks he’s an NHL player,” Babcock said. “But I guess the other side is that he might not have been here all year if we had been healthy.

“He’s got a chance to go to the American League. I guess if you just look at it from a purely selfish view from his point, is now he gets to play 20-minutes a night instead of battling for seven or eight and surviving. It’s probably his last chance for a couple years to play that many minutes, power play and penalty kill. He’s not eligible for waivers next year, he’ll be on our roster for sure, so in that way it’s really good for him.”

Forward Kris Draper had only compliments for the young forward.

“He played on the power play, he did a great job of getting in front of the net, he was physical, he had no problems getting in there and mixing it up,” Draper said. “For sure, he’s going to be disappointed, and he should be. But that’s the salary cap era, that’s just the way it is. It’s going to be tough, but he’s a great kid.

“I briefly talked to him, and just told him to go down there and dominate. Do what he was doing up here. He’s going to get an opportunity to play a ton of minutes, which is going to be great for his all-around development. There’s no doubt he should be disappointed, this is where he wants to be, he got a great taste of it, and it is going to be tough for him. “

PLAYOFF PICTURE: Friday’s game is a hugely important to the Wings with two points available against a Central Division foe. The Predators (61 points) are currently in seventh-place in the West, two points ahead of the ninth-place Wings.

For Babcock, the Wings need to focus on defense to win.

“The biggest thing for us is that we have to be way more responsible defensively,” he said. “You can’t be good defensively when you turn over pucks, we’ve got to take care of the puck, be better defensively, and that’s how we’ve had success.

“We won a lot of games with a lineup that wasn’t near as good as the lineup we have now, because we played hard defensively and we were committed. And now we’re more skilled, and we turn over more way more pucks, and we haven’t been as good. Instead of winning 2-1, we’re losing 5-4, and I’d rather win 2-1.”

STUART TO PLAY: Following a shoulder injury sustained during the first period of Wednesday’s loss at Minnesota, defenseman Brad Stuart was day-to-day. But after Friday’s morning skate, the veteran said that he would play Friday against Nashville.

“I was a little worried right when it happened, but it feels better,” Stuart said. “It’s been progressively getting better, so that’s a good sign.”

But as far as Babcock’s concerned, Stuart is a game-time decision.

HOMER UPDATE: Still recovering from a broken foot, Tomas Holmstrom skated Friday morning, and said he is still on track to return Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“I feel pretty good, way better than yesterday,” Holmstrom said. “So every day is getting better and better, today was a really good skate.”

COLD WAR II: On Thursday, the University of Michigan announced that it will host an outdoor hockey game – a rematch with Michigan State University on Dec. 11.

The game will be played at Michigan Stadium, and with his 106,201 capacity will likely pass the all-time attendance record for college or pro hockey. The current record is held by the original Cold War, which was played in front of 74,544 fans at MSU’s Spartan Stadium on Oct. 6, 2001.

Thursday’s announcement has raised questions about a Wings’ involvement in Ann Arbor.

Defenseman Niklas Kronwall said he would love to play in front of a mammoth crowd.

“Well I mean, I thought was an unbelievable experience (in Chicago),” Kronwall said. “I think any time you get a chance to play outdoors, especially 80 or 90,000 people, I wish I could go there.”

Kronwall said that the 2009 Winter Classic was such a great time that the players wanted a rematch.

“Obviously it was an awesome experience,” he said. “I had a great time last time. When the game was over, we all just wanted to go out there and play again because it was so much fun. I only hope I can do that again.”

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