March 27, 2014 at 1:00 am

Gregg Krupa

Players returning from injuries help Red Wings, but most aren't at full speed

Detroit — The injuries are bad enough, but getting the guys up and running again makes it all the worse.

How quickly the Red Wings who are returning from injuries regain their top form will be one of the key factors determining how far the team will last this season.

With four teams at 80 points fighting for the two wild-card slots in the Eastern Conference, the question hovers over the Wings, especially in regards to Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

Coach Mike Babcock found some offense Thursday night, tinkering with the lines populated by recent returnees.

But offense has been an ongoing problem. Over the last several games it has come mostly from one line: Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan.

A playoff spot will likely require at least one more productive line. Success in the playoffs would likely require contributions from all four.

Working back into shape

“We score less than anybody, I think, in hockey, this last little while,” Babcock said. “All we do is check. The other team has the puck about 66 percent of the time, and we just check like crazy.”

With their place in the standings, the Wings have no time for players to “work their way back in.”

Darren Helm, the consummate spark plug who returned four games ago, has yet to fully reignite.

But Thursday he was united with Johan Franzen and Nyquist in the Red Wings’ 5-4 loss to the Canadiens. They accounted for the fourth goal might be together again Saturday in Toronto.

No blame should be assessed for players playing their way back into shape. In the NHL, they talk about returning to speed after an injury, especially concussions and leg injuries that prevent skating during during the recovery period. It is difficult to simulate game speed in practice.

“The big thing is, you get them back but they’re good for one game, and then it takes about three games to get their conditioning up to speed,” Babcock said.

The right mix

Tomas Jurco figured to fare better, and he did. His return allowed Babcock to maneuver, and he hit on some line combinations that garnered four goals.

It was not enough against the Canadiens, who benefited from one, perhaps two, missed calls by the linesmen that should have stopped play before Montreal scored. But it provides some hope that the offense may perk up in the last nine games.

One hope is catching lightning in a bottle. And, eventually, Babcock found his way there.

At first, he hesitated to break Nyquist free of Tatar and Sheahan, to put him on a line with Franzen and David Legwand.

“That line needs more tempo,” Babcock said of Franzen and Legwand.

That would have reunited Jurco, Tatar and Sheahan, who were together eight games ago. But Tatar and Sheahan were blazing with Nyquist.

Babcock also hoped that Helm would click with Daniel Alfredsson and Joakim Andersson, who returned to play three games ago on a healing broken foot. Helm and Alfredsson had clicked when they played with Justin Abdelkader in January.

“We’re just trying to have more balance,” Babcock said.

But before the end of the first period, with the Wings sputtering on offense, Jurco was back with the kids and Nyquist with the old goats.

And Jurco started the second by driving the net to help Riley Sheahan’s goal, the Red Wings’ first. Then, he was on the ice when Tatar scored unassisted, before he assisted on Tatar’s second goal.

Still tinkering, Babcock put Helm, who is starting to look like his old self, with Franzen and Nyquist, breaking him away from Alfredsson and Andersson.

Franzen, Helm and Nyquist accounted for the fourth Red Wings goal with 8:24 left.

As for Datsyuk, he says he would like to return before the playoffs. But it sounds as though that bad knee needs a summer off or surgery.

Zetterberg can begin contact eight weeks after his back surgery on April 17, one day after the scheduled start of the playoffs. That is only one step in his eventual return.

They might make it. But players need to get up to speed after they heal. And the great tinkerer must tinker.

Detroit's Riley Sheahan and Montreal's Lars Eller battle for the puck in the first period Thursday. / David Guralnick / Detroit News
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