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Pittsburgh — Count Xavier Ouellet among those ripe, but still on the vine.

The 22-year-old defenseman was probably neck-and-neck with Alexey Marchenko, 24, last season and during training camp this fall.

But while Marchenko has played in 48 of his 62 career games this season, Ouellet appeared in his third of 28 games Thursday against the Penguins.

When the injured Niklas Kronwall returns, possibly this weekend, or Jonathan Ericsson, perhaps next week, Ouellet likely will return to Grand Rapids, where he has been an American Hockey League All-Star in consecutive seasons.

Jeff Blashill, who coached Ouellet with the Griffins, says he is fully confident in the young defender, drafted in the second round (48th overall) in 2011.

And Ouellet said, “I feel pretty comfortable.”

“I am used to this group of guys, and I’ve been here a little bit, last year. So it just makes it easier for me to come in in the middle of a season like that.”

Ouellet said he was disappointed not to make the roster at the start of the year.

“Every year I come to camp with the goal of making the team and staying,” he said. “So, it was obviously a shock.

“But it’s part of the game, part of the business and I had to go down there and play some good hockey, and I think I did.”

Faster and faster

Penguins veterans Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang say the Red Wings they have known, including their matchups in the 2008 and 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, are now a faster team.

Accounting for that speed and the normally disciplined Wings structure was a priority for the Penguins entering Thursday’s game, they said.

“They have a lot more speed than they had in the past,” Letang said.

Meanwhile, the matchup offered the Penguins an opportunity to play the team they beat with five consecutive goals after falling behind 2-0 on New Year’s Eve.

Letang scored two, Crosby one.

They believe it is the game that jump-started their season.

The Penguins were 17-15-4 before the game. They are 11-4-4 since.

“I think that you build confidence from games like that,” Crosby said. “Since then, we’ve been in some tough situations in the third, and bounced back from that.”

Crosby said some of the intensity of the rivalry, first generated several years ago, remains.

“Both teams have a lot of pride, and when you go through games like that, there is a history,” he said. “But it’s just really competitive; two teams that like to play a pretty similar style.”

Facing hot Datsyuk

The Penguins said they welcomed another chance to face Pavel Datsyuk.

Datsyuk returned in game No. 16 on Nov. 13, after ankle surgery, appeared slower for a number of games and scored three goals in his first 20.

He admitted “something’s missing.”

But he is now ablaze, with six goals and four assists in six games and 24 shots in the last five.

Asked about Datsyuk’s age, now 37, Crosby said: “I think, with him, he’s always going to have those hands. He’s always going to have that vision.

“I don’t really think it matters how old he is, the way he sees the game, the way he anticipates.”

Enjoying a breather

Two days without a game this week offered the Wings a respite.

Blashill said it was perhaps better for the team than his family.

“I was grouchy at home, so I think my wife would say it wasn’t great,” he said, smiling.

“I think, from the players’ perspective, it was probably good just to get a little breather.”

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/greggkrupa

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