DETROIT – By all accounts, the Red Wings will get a huge lift on Friday as Pavel Datsyuk is expected to play for the first time since last April.
Datsyuk, who had surgery in June to repair ruptured tendons in his right ankle, will play for the first time since the Red Wings were eliminated in their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“It’s obviously a lift,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. “He’s for a long time been one of the best players in the world, but I also think it’s important as a team to understand we have to make sure – the rest of us – continue on the progress we made and play real well. We can’t get caught with ‘we’re waiting for him to be a savior.’ He’s a really good piece of the puzzle.”
A series of injuries, including the ankle, a knee as well as a concussion, has forced Datsyuk to miss a total of 71 of the Red Wings last 179 regular-season games.
According to Blashill, the plan for Friday’s opponent, the San Jose Sharks, is to start Datsyuk on the top line with captain Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader.
“We felt at least at the start to have Zetterberg and Datsyuk together,” Blashill said. “They’ve been together at different times of their career and apart. It doesn’t mean in the game we can’t make changes, but we think for the foreseeable future – I don’t know how many weeks that is – we’ll have them together for the most part. We’ve talked about who’s the best partner with them. We decided this morning on Abby. I thought Abby had one of his better games in a while against Washington. He’s been a good mix on that line in the past.”
That means rookie Dylan Larkin, who has spent most of the first 4 ½ weeks of the season playing top-line minutes, moves to second-line center between Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist.
Abdelkader is looking forward to pulling the piano again for Datsyuk.
“I think it’s gonna help our whole team in every asset,” Abdelkader said. “In practice he looks unbelievable, and obviously in games he’s gonna be huge, a big help, and each part of the game. If I’m playing with him it’s gonna be a lot of fun. Obviously I know what my job is, I’ve played with him before. But I think as a team we’re really excited to have him back and he’s gonna make us that much better.”
As for defenseman Mike Green, who spent the first 10 seasons of his NHL career in Washington, playing with Datsyuk for the first time will be a welcomed change from playing against him.
“He’s so dangerous and quick, it’s almost like he’s a step ahead of you out there, whether it’s thinking or he’s actually got good speed in the corner,” Green said. “I always made sure I had good position on him, let him sort of make his move before lunging at him because he’ll make you look silly.”
With the anticipation of Datsyuk’s return, the Wings continued to juggle all four lines at Thursday’s practice, moving Riley Sheahan from second-line center to third-line left wing where he’ll join center Andreas Athanasiou and Teemu Pulkkinen. The fourth line was centered by Luke Glendening with Drew Miller and Darren Helm on the wings.
The Red Wings don’t anticipating having to make any immediate roster moves that would expose anybody on waivers to accommodate Datsyuk’s return.
Currently, the Wings have four players on injured reserve – Brad Richards (back), Johan Franzen (concussion), Landon Ferraro (knee) and Kyle Quincey (ankle). The team will place Quincey on long-term injured reserve as early as this weekend when the defenseman undergoes surgery on Saturday to remove bone chips from his right ankle. He had a similar surgery in the offseason to remove chips from his left ankle.
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said Quincey to be sidelined for 9-12 weeks.
“We have to do something,” Holland said. “We always got the option to put Quincey on LTI, Franzen on LTI. … We just put Ferraro on IR, and Richards, I think he’s missed eight or nine games and he’s not playing this weekend so as far as activating Pavel, there’s no issues roster space or cap-wise.”
Center - DET
Goals: 0 | Assists: 2 | Pts: 2
Shots: 13 | +/-: -1
Richards, who has missed the past nine games with a lower-back injury, participated in his first full team practice Thursday.
While the veteran center will not be available this weekend, he hopes that he’s headed in the right direction.
“I feel good, obviously a lot better than three weeks ago,” said Richards, who has two assists in six games. “It’s just a process of slowing climbing a hill getting back in game shape and game speed. I didn’t do much the first couple of weeks so I probably need a little conditioning here. Go on the ice, see how it reacts tomorrow and if everything keeps going the right way skate again tomorrow.”
Blashill was encouraged to see Richards on the ice Thursday.
“He seems to be in a spot where he’s taking steps forward for sure,” the head coach said. “You never know with the back. The more he tests it the more we’re going to know but it certainly is encouraging.”
Injuries have never really plagued Richards’ career. The 35-year-old missed just 20 regular-season games in the previous six campaigns. But the back began to flare up during training camp and he’d rather get things taken care of now rather than let it fester deep into the season.
“If it was April maybe you push through some things differently,” Richards said. “At game six I didn’t want it to turn into something where I’m missing the second half the season. The doctors and training staff here we felt this was the best course to try and get back to where I’m not thinking about it. That would be the best case scenario.”
SPEED TO BURN:
Center - DET
Goals: 1 | Assists: 0 | Pts: 1
Shots: 3 | +/-: 1
Blashill likes what he has seen out of Athanasiou in the two games since he was called up from Grand Rapids last Sunday.
The 21-year-old collected his first NHL goal, which was also a game winner in the Wings’ 1-0 win over the Capitals on Tuesday.
Athanasiou gives the Wings speed and versatility on the third line, while also giving them two centermen who can take draws in the face-off circle.
“I think we’ll start it that way,” Blashill said. “Sheahan then has the ability to take some D-zone faceoffs as well depending on how AA is doing. AA can do both, play wing or center but he’s played more at center and we feel it might be best for his speed but we might make that change during the game as well.”
WINGS NOTES: Brendan Smith (illness) shared time at Thursday’s practice with Jakub Kindl on the third defensive pairing with Alexey Marchenko. Blashill said Smith’s status for Friday’s game is undecided. …
In Thursday’s practice, Jimmy Howard occupied the net usually reserved for the starting goalie in the upcoming game. Though Blashill said he’ll reveal who’s starting after Friday’s morning skate at Joe Louis Arena.
Howard didn’t finish his last start when he took an accidental knee in the head by Dallas forward Jason Spezza. The Wings’ goalie said he was fine, and that he was only lifted as a precaution.
In 15 career starts against the Sharks, Howard has a 4-6-4 record with a 2.88 goals-against average and .905 save percentage.
Should Howard get the start on Friday, expect Petr Mrazek to face the Boston Bruins at TD Garden on Saturday night.