By Ashley Dunkak
JOE LOUIS ARENA (CBS DETROIT) – When Pavel Datsyuk hits the ice Friday night at Joe Louis Arena, it will be his first game in the home arena of the Detroit Red Wings since Dec. 23, 2013.
Amid an ongoing struggle to stay healthy, Datsyuk played in the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day but missed the rest of the games in January. He played in road games on both sides of the Winter Olympics but missed every game in March. For the vast majority of the last three months, Detroit’s best player has been out of commission, and Friday he will make his return from a knee injury.
In Datsyuk’s absence – and the absence of many other veterans due to injury – the Red Wings have scrapped their way back into the playoffs, and their young players have carried the team, particularly 24-year-old Gustav Nyquist.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock wants Nyquist to continue playing exactly as he has been playing, so at least for now, he will not put Datsyuk on a line with Nyquist, who has been playing on the top line with Johan Franzen and David Legwand.
“My thought process is Nyquist is playing great where he’s playing, and so I don’t want him deferring and giving the puck to Pav,” Babcock said. “I want him shooting it in the net.”
Nyquist scored the game-winning breakaway goal Wednesday against the Boston Bruins, and it was the 10th straight game in which Nyquist earned a point. Nyquist now has 46 points (including 28 goals) in 51 games. One of the hottest players in the NHL, Nyquist has received Star of the Week honors from the NHL and was also named one of the league’s stars for the entire month of March.
Babcock also plans on keeping together what has come to be called the “kid line” of Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco.
“It’s hard to play with good players, veteran players, because you think you’ve got to give them the puck,” Babcock said. “That’s why I keep those kids together. They don’t worry about giving each other the puck. They just do the right thing. As soon as I play one of them with a senior-type player, then they want to look after that guy.
“It’s not about Pavel Datsyuk tonight,” Babcock added. “It’s about the Red Wings. He’s got to fit in.”
Tatar is 23 years old, Sheahan is 22, and Jurco is 21, but their play has impressed the coach, and he does not want to disrupt their chemistry by changing up the lines even though Datsyuk has returned.
“If they didn’t play well, we’d try to do something else with it, but they’ve played well,” Babcock said. “They’re important players on our team, they’ve given us offense and been good defensively. At the same time, we’ve got to get them to take care of the puck. Sometimes they get a little careless with the puck, but other than that, they’ve been excellent.”
Nyquist speaks of Datysuk’s return optimistically, and his voice conveys a little bit of awe when he talks about the team’s star player, but he knows his own responsibilities will not change, particularly since Datsyuk may take some time to get acclimated.
“When I see Pavel play, I think he’s great, all the time,” Nyquist said. “Game-shape-wise, I think it’s going to take a few games, just like everyone else. It’s not the same as skating hard in practice or anything like that. You can’t really get that game-type of situation feeling in. It’s probably going to take him a few games, but he’s going to help our team out for sure. He’s one of the best centermen in the world, but again we’ve got to stay with it as a team. We’ve got to do our part as well.
“I don’t think he’s going to come in and just save the whole team,” Nyquist continued. “We’ve still got to work. Obviously he’s going to be our best player out there, but us other guys, we’ve still got to keep playing the way we’ve been doing.”
Datsyuk will play on a line with Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader. Even given Datsyuk’s long absence, Babcock still expects a solid performance, if not the usual superstar level that many have come to expect from Datsyuk, who captained Team Russia in the Olympics.
“I expect him to play well,” Babcock said. “We’ll see how he plays, and we’ll play him accordingly. We’ve got him on the power play, we’ve got him on a line, and we’ll just watch the game and see what happens.
“I don’t think [fatigue] will be a factor at all tonight,” Babcock added. “I think it’d be a factor if he’s playing tomorrow.”