May 25, 2013 at 5:59 am

Ted Kulfan

Ten questions about Wings-Hawks series: Abdelkader answers the call

While Pavel Datsyuk, left, and Henrik Zetterberg have expectedly played well, Detroitís defense has been amazingly stellar in the first four games against the Blackhawks. (David Guralnick/Detroit News)

The Red Wings are one win away from the Western Conference Finals.

Not many analysts or fans would have suspected that, heading into a series against the league's best regular season team, the Chicago Blackhawks.

Here are 10 questions many fans have asked about heading into either the end of this series — or beginning of the next one.

1. Which Wings player has surprised you the most?

Justin Abdelkader.

There was the belief Abdelkader would always be a solid third- or fourth-line grinder, a big body who plays hard, could kill penalties and maybe surprise with a goal every once in a while.

But a top-six forward? Playing on a line with Pavel Datsyuk?

It seemed far-fetched, but watching Abdelkader score goals in the Anaheim series and the way he's complemented Datsyuk with his physical play against Chicago, Abdelkader is slowly evolving into a force in some way.

He's a physical presence who can score goals, fight, and is a good character guy.

Those players, by the way, earn huge contracts down the line.

2. What other Wings players have risen to a new level?

There are so many. Jimmy Howard looks like a top-tier, elite goalie. Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson have become a full-fledged, shutdown pair of defensemen in these playoffs. The huge stage of the NHL playoffs hasn't been too imposing for Damien Brunner. The likes of Joakim Andersson, Gustav Nyquist, Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl are getting better every game despite the glare of the playoffs.

Not many people expected all of this.

3. Has Valtteri Filppula done enough to earn a new contract?

No, but that doesn't mean he's not going to get one. Probably not for as much as Filppula and his agent want, but I fully expect the Red Wings and Filppula to come to a length and dollar figure somewhere in the middle.

Filppula is comfortable here. It's the only organization he's known and he likes his teammates. He's not the most outgoing guy in the world, so moving to a new organization wouldn't seem something like he would totally enjoy doing.

And playing with the likes of Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg can help a player's statistics.

Just ask Jiri Hudler, who struggled in Calgary this season after chasing big money.

4. What about Daniel Cleary and his status for next season?

Like Filppula, an unrestricted free agent, Cleary will be 34, and how much production he can provide in the next few years is debatable.

You have all the forwards currently playing so well on a nightly basis, some other Grand Rapids forwards knocking on the door (remember Tomas Tatar?), and Darren Helm, Todd Bertuzzi, Mikael Samuelsson and Jordin Tootoo all not playing because of injuries or being listed as healthy scratches.

It's pretty crowded. If you keep 14 forwards, there are still guys who will not return.

5. Which Wings player has to do more?

Filppula is an obvious choice for many fans, but Johan Franzen (four goals and two assists in 11 games) has been hot and cold during the playoffs.

Franzen has a point in the last three games, all Red Wings victories, which is a positive sign.

The playoffs are usually Franzen's time of year, and if he plays to the level he has in the past, the way the other Red Wings are playing, the team could be in for a real special run here.

6. What is the Blackhawks' biggest problem?

Some of Chicago's star offensive players simply haven't produced.

The Blackhawks have scored a grand total of two goals over the last three games — both scored by Patrick Kane, who, incidentally, went scoreless in the first round against Minnesota.

Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp scored goals in Game 1 and have gone silent since. Jonathan Toews' all-around struggles have been well-documented.

The much-discussed depth up front the Blackhawks have hasn't done anything offensively.

For a team known for its scoring, the Blackhawks have been shut down by the Red Wings completely.

7. Where is Todd Bertuzzi?

Bertuzzi is a top-six forward who didn't fit as a fourth-line player.

He wasn't getting the playing time he needs, the last three games he played less than 10 minutes, and it is questionable his back is even 100 percent after missing most of the regular season.

The fact Bertuzzi did return and play is a positive for Bertuzzi, and gives the Red Wings confidence regarding him for these playoffs and into next season.

8. Babcock has gotten a lot of praise. He has new assistants this season. Have they made an impact?

Just look at the results: Tom Renney (power play) and Bill Peters (penalty kill) have produced with the special teams.

The power play struggled the start of this series but came through with a game-winning goal in Game 4. The penalty kill has been superb for the majority of this series, and was particularly effective Thursday against the Blackhawks.

9. Where does Jimmy Howard rank among the league's goalies?

If you go by these playoffs, Howard has been as good as anyone.

The Red Wings have had many goalies play out of their minds and defeat them almost singlehandedly in past playoffs (Miikka Kiprusoff, J.S. Giguere, Dwayne Roloson, Pekka Rinne, Patrick Roy).

But in this series, particularly, Howard is doing that to the Blackhawks.

10. If the Wings win the series, who do they match up better against, San Jose or Los Angeles?

The Kings are defending Stanley Cup champions and play a rugged brand of hockey. They are so big and strong and when they begin cycling the puck, it's difficult to get it away from them.

Injuries on defense plagued the Kings much of this season, but they're getting healthier.

And goalie Jonathan Quick is duplicating last season's magic.

The Kings could be a tough out.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

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