DETROIT - It’s no secret that the Pittsburgh Penguins will be bringing one of the world’s best players to Joe Louis Arena Thursday.
“We know he’s one of the best players in the world, if not the best,” defenseman Danny DeKeyser said of Pittsburgh’s star center Sidney Crosby. “I think everybody knows that. We expect him to come out and play hard and we just gotta try to match that and try to shut those guys down and do the best we can.”
The Penguins sit at the top of the Metropolitan Division with 94 points, led by Crosby’s league-leading 91 points and 58 assists. The center has earned three points in the club’s last two games and his 33 goals rank fifth in the NHL.
“Just like all the best players I’ve coached, elite, elite, elite competitors,” said coach Mike Babcock, who coached Crosby in the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games. “Drivetrain is second to none. He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s so thick and so powerful and a great, great skater. He gets a step on you. No different than a guy like (Jonathan) Toews, (Pavel) Datsyuk or (Henrik) Zetterberg. He’s just on another level.”
But the Wings’ defense is more than ready for the challenge.
“He’s one of the best in the world,” defenseman Brian Lashoff said. “It’s exciting and a challenge for everybody to try and shut a guy like that down.”
It won’t be easy, though, especially with the recent loss of Jonathan Ericsson. Ericsson suffered a broken finger on his left hand in Detroit’s 3-2 victory over Toronto Tuesday. The defenseman is expected to miss 4-6 weeks after undergoing surgery Wednesday to stabilize the finger.
With the loss of Ericsson, the Wings recalled defenseman Adam Almquist from the Grand Rapids Griffins Wednesday. Almquist has appeared in two games for Detroit this season, earning one goal and a minus-1 rating.
Brendan Smith will replace Ericsson on the Wings' top line of defense against Pittsburgh, skating alongside veteran Niklas Kronwall.
“He’s just got to compete hard and make good decisions with the puck,” Babcock said of Smith. “Smitty’s got the competitive nature you need, he’s got the skating you need, the skill you need. His decision-making with the puck gets him in trouble at times and his decision-making being active, so those are things you grow with, you become a better player. Do more by doing less, make the simple play, don’t force things, lots of shifts are 50-50, nothing happens.”
DeKeyser and Kyle Quincey will form the Wings’ second defensive pairing, while Jakub Kindl will skate alongside Brian Lashoff on the club’s third pairing Thursday.
“We’re going to have to do it by committee and take advantage of the opportunity we have now,” Lashoff said. “We lost Kronner for a bit, we lost DK for a bit so we’re used to it now. We just have to rally together.”
They’ll have plenty to keep their hands full. Pittsburgh boasts the league’s second best power play and is tied for the second best penalty kill, led by Crosby’s 10 goals and 32 points on the man-advantage. But the club’s special teams numbers drop slightly on the road, as the Penguins’ road power play of 23.6 percent is tied for fourth and their road penalty kill ranks seventh in the NHL.
“They have really good special teams, they’ve got some star players,” Lashoff said. “We have to limit our mistakes and turnovers because they’re a good transition team that plays with a lot of speed. They’re one of the best in the conference. It’s a huge game with everything that’s been going on. We have to take advantage and get some points.”
With seven of their next 10 opponents currently ranked ahead of them in the playoff standings, there’s no question that the Wings have to earn as many points as possible with just 14 games remaining in the regular season, beginning with second-best team in the Eastern Conference.
“I think every game for us here on out is huge,” DeKeyser said. “We need to get two points in pretty much every game that we can so you know they got a great top line there and they have some good secondary scoring as well so it’s going to be up to us to try to shut them down and hopefully we can do that. A lot of teams have good top lines so it’s going to be nothing different than the usual.”
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