Wings aflutter with Datsyuk back in the fold

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Pavel Datsyuk limped around quite a bit at the end of last season while trying to play, but the announcement in the spring that he would require surgery on some ruptured ankle ligaments came as a surprise.

Considering the Red Wings would launch the season with their first new coach in a decade, and a rookie head coach in the NHL, it felt a bit unsettling.

Then Johan Franzen's post-concussion problems returned and then injuries to the two big free-agent acquisitions from the summer of 2015 put both offensive defenseman Mike Green and center Brad Richards out of the lineup.

That is a lot of offense suddenly gone almost before things got going.

Datsyuk's return Friday — as the Wings face the Sharks, whom they have defeated only three times in the past 10 regular season games — is significant reassurance for a club that stood one slot out of the playoffs, beforehand, with two fewer goals for than against (34-36).

Without the whirling dervish Datsyuk, 37, and the rest of the fire power, the Red Wings seem fortunate to be at 8-6-1, nearly halfway through November.

Credit fine goaltending, an inspired and inspiring performance by the captain, Henrik Zetterberg and coach Jeff Blashill's calm demeanor and direction.

If they make the playoffs, the Red Wings may well look back on their performance during the injury-riddled first 15 games as the key juncture in their campaign.

But, now, they could use some more offense.

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"I think the last three games we have been spending more time than the other team in the offensive end," Zetterberg said, citing a key area in which the Wings have sought improvement, through a better launch of their attack from the defensive zone and more possession. "We are getting better.

"And obviously having him back and getting the puck in and holding on to it in the zone will help us."

Datsyuk did not speak to the media Friday morning. But his increasing friskiness on the ice in practices suggest that his announced plan to return only when he was at his full capabilities is now fulfilled.

His general demeanor during the morning skate was celebratory.

"Having him back, he obviously plays a lot of minutes, and just having his presence in the locker room and on the ice" is important, Zetterberg said.

Zetterberg had 15 points in the 15 games the Wings played without Datsyuk and Dylan Larkin and Gus Nyquist chipped in with 10 apiece to provide much of the scoring punch. The team averaged 2.27 goals a game.

Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek made a crucial difference, both compiling 2.07 goals against averages — Howard in seven starts and Mrazek in eight.

In six of the last seven games, the Wings yielded two goals or less, playing without perhaps their best defensive defenseman, Kyle Quincey, in all of them.

"I think we've been tightening things up here and playing a little more structured game and involving the D a lot," Zetterberg said, analyzing the stretch. "So we've been creating a lot more chances and haven't spent as much time in our own end.

"So that's probably why it's been a little better lately."

Blashill said a key contribution from Datsyuk is scoring depth.

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His return allows the coach to play Dylan Larkin on the second line with Gus Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, and to use another speedy, offensive-minded center, 21-year-old Andreas Athanasiou on the third line.

"I think what Larkin's done all year is that he brings speed and tenacity on the puck," he said. "He's obviously been one of our better forwards during the early part of the year.

"We hope it's something that can bring some depth of scoring.

"We need more depth of scoring throughout our lineup. We haven't scored enough goals.

"Now, with that said, I think we've done a pretty good job of defending," Blashill said. "Obviously, we've gotten good goaltending throughout the year. So, we need to continue to defend well, and find a way to get one more (goal) a night, if we can."

As for playing more in the offensive zone, Blashill said the team mostly has done well.

"I don't think it's necessarily been a problem," he said.

"We track it as actual zone time. We don't track it as shots. That's something that's bothered me for a while. I don't know when shots became possession. To me, possession is possession. And because it's hard to track doesn't mean it's not the right state.

"We try to track it with zone time. We've done a good job of it.

"We've had five games when we've been on the wrong side of it, four back-to-backs and another one where we've been on the negative side of the zone time.

"So. I think's it's been a positive.

"Does Pavel help in that? I sure hope so.

"He has, certainly, in the past."