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Johan Franzen finding his form on Wings' top line

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit – Henrik Zetterberg paused and irritably scratched at his beard for a couple seconds. The question was about his countryman and line mate Johan Franzen and the impact he's had on the Red Wings the past five games since coming off a groin injury.

"Yeah, like, I can't really understand people that complain about the Mule," Zetterberg said.

And this is where things are with Franzen these days. Even when the results are positive and the post-game questions are meant to elicit a positive response, the initial reaction is still defensive – why are you criticizing the Mule?

Nobody was complaining about Franzen Friday. His second period goal against the Blackhawks, set up by Zetterberg, ended up being his second game-winner of the season. He's had goals in the last three games and points in the last five (three goals, two assists).

And it's not just the points. He's skating hard. He's doing his job on the defensive end and he's been throwing his 6-4, 232-pound body around. Except for the six games he missed with the groin injury, the Mule has been, well, a beast.

"If you look at his season so far, obviously he was out for a bit, but that happens to anyone," Zetterberg said. "But when he's played, he's showing up, he's putting points on the board, he's working hard and he's good defensively. We were happy with the way Mule was and happy he's playing well."

But with Franzen, because of the dominance he displayed during a three-year reign of terror in the postseason from 2008-2010 (31 goals, 59 points, plus-29 in 51 games), and because of the 11-year, $43.5 million contract he signed in 2009, and because he hasn't been able to maintain consistent good health or production since, there is always the perception from outside the organization that he's underachieving.

Franzen addressed this earlier this season. Yes, he needs to find a way to stay healthy and be more consistent. That was one of his goals coming into the season. But as far as being a 50 or 60 goal scorer – that's not who he's trying to be. He strives to be a complete player, one who makes an impact at both ends of the rink, one who makes the little plays as well as his share of the big ones.

He's been that through the 10 games he's played this year.

"When his legs are going, he's an ultra-effective player," coach Mike Babcock said. "When he's standing around watching, he's just like the rest of us, not quite as good."

Franzen was asked if he felt like he's playing at a more consistently high level.

"Yeah, I guess," he said.

He was asked how he measures consistency.

"When we win," he said. "When we win we feel good. Just helping the team win some way or another. It's nice to put up points but sometimes you get lucky. My first two assists this season, one wasn't me and one hit my butt, and all of a sudden they say I am playing great. OK? I guess I'm great."

There were times the past couple of years when it seemed Franzen wasn't having much fun playing hockey. But these days, he's having a blast, especially since Babcock put him on a line with fellow Swedes Zetterberg and Gustav Nyquist.

"I'm playing on a good line," he said. "Hank is holding onto the puck and creating space and Gus is quick as anyone. It's fun. They are really helping out."

That line had a goal and 10 shots Friday and controlled the game territorially nearly every shift.

"We're playing good," Franzen said. "We're usually up against the top line on the other side so we've got to play every day. It's fun to have that challenge, too. It keeps you on your toes and keeps you hungry."

That hunger seems to be pervasive throughout this team. The season hasn't hit the quarter pole yet and the identity of this team is still being forged. But one thing is clear: this isn't your late-1990s, early-2000 Red Wings. There are no superstars and very few grizzled veterans. This is a team built on youth and speed and playing five-man team hockey.

"When we play good like we've done a few games this year — not all the games, but a few, three or four games we were really, really good — we play really quick," Franzen said. "We don't turn the puck over, we come back and help the defense and they make good passes for us. When everything clicks we are really good.

"But we are still a young team. We have to find a way to do that every night."

The potential is high — that was evident in the dismantling of the Blackhawks Friday. But the margin for error is still small.

"You've got to be focused," Franzen said. "Like, a good pass or a so-so pass can be the difference in the puck coming out of your zone and not having to spend one minute in your own end instead of one minute at the other end.

"It's such small things that you've got to do on a regular basis and do it every night to be successful."

Chris McCosky on Twitter @cmccosky