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Detroit — Sitting and watching your teammates try to win NHL games is no fun.

When it happens in the playoffs?

"It's always tough this time of year watching and knowing you could help out there," Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader said Tuesday before Game 3 against the Lightning.

Abdelkader was in the lineup for the first time since April 4, when he blocked a shot from the point with his right hand against the Wild.

"Yeah, just really excited," he said.

Abdelkader's growth toward establishing himself as a scoring power forward escalated sharply this season when he produced 23 goals, 13 more than his previous career high.

But his addition means more than potential offense.

It allows Mike Babcock to split Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg again, and skate two lines that are strong offensively and defensively against the top two lines of the best scoring team in the league.

And another return to the lineup, Brendan Smith, who replaced the rookie Alexey Marchenko, could help the Wings assert their better defensive play after a few lapses cost them dearly in the 5-1 loss in Game 2.

Smith was to be reunited with Marek Zidlicky as the Red Wings third pair, with Danny Dekeyser and Kyle Quincey rejoined as the second pair.

It should strengthen both units.

Smith was a healthy scratch after he batted a live puck, while sitting on the bench, into the bench against the Canadiens two weeks ago.

Winning the battles

"For myself, I can be physical and win a lot of battles, and that's what coach wants us to do when we get in there," he said.

"For sure, in playoff time you want to be competitive, and the most competitive teams win."

Jonathan Ericsson did not practice Monday and, like some of the other regulars, did not hit the ice for the morning skate Tuesday.

But Babcock said he would be in the lineup.

The moves allow the Wings to skate with the players who were their regulars the last part of the regular season, except that rookie Landon Ferraro has replaced Stephen Weiss.

Weiss' woes continue in Detroit, while Valtteri Filppula, the player not signed as a free agent by the Red Wings in favor of acquiring Weiss, helps solidify the third line for the Lightning.

The Wings hope the return of Abdelkader and Smith bolsters their performance, which lagged in both road games starting the series despite Petr Mrazek and the team stealing the win in Game 1.

"In any series, you've got to keep getting better, if you are going to win," Babcock said. "Because someone is going to get better.

"And normally what happens is one team gains in confidence and one team loses confidence, and the team with confidence gets better and better."

Babcock said Abdelkader would be unlikely to take faceoffs, as his right hand continues to heal.

He might wear a block in his glove to protect the hand, Babcock added.

"Hopefully as a team we can play better," Abdelkader said.

"We got a lot better (in Game 2), I think. They're a good team, and I think both teams are really similar as to how they approach the game and how they play the game.

"So, we've just got to be a little harder and a little more competitive around the net."

Abdelkader also had 21 assists during what was, by any estimation, a breakout regular season for the Muskegon native and former Spartans star.

In particular, his ability to finish Zetterberg's strong playmaking was outstanding.

'I'm always hungry'

Through 2½ regular seasons, Smith has endured the growing pains of a young defenseman adjusting to the NHL.

His skating ability and willingness to join the offense are strong points, and he has been more careful with both the puck and his positioning as his career evolves.

The mistake in Montreal and his relegation to healthy scratch status diverted him, and Smith plainly seemed eager to get back on the ice.

"I think I'm always hungry," Smith said. "I'm just ready to go out there and play hard."

Asked whether Game 3 is critical to the success of the Red Wings in the series, he said, "Absolutely, I think any game is pivotal in the playoffs.

"I mean, you keep striving to go one-up on the next team. Sometimes you can play your best and kind of get the momentum going."

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/greggkrupa

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