DETROIT – Just how hurt the Detroit Red Wings are is up in the air as they prepare to defend the Stanley Cup against the same opponent they met in last year’s final – the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Coach Mike Babcock said Friday that only one question mark remains – star centre Pavel Datsyuk – but centre Kris Draper says he’ll only know if he’s ready to play after trying to skate one more time on Saturday morning.
The Red Wings should have Jonathan Ericsson back, however. The defenceman did not skate Friday but the team expects he will be ready to go for Game 1.
The Red Wings and Penguins open the best-of-seven series Saturday night (8 p.m. ET) at Joe Louis Arena.
“Pavel’s the only last-minute decision, everyone else is going to be ready,” said Babcock.
Of course, the main concern for the Red Wings is the anchor of the defence, Nicklas Lidstrom, who took part in a full practice and pronounced himself ready to step back in after sitting out the final two games of the five-game Western Conference final against the Chicago Blackhawks with an undisclosed injury.
Draper also missed the last two games with a groin problem, while Ericsson has been out two games while having an appendectomy. Datsyuk has missed three games with a suspected broken foot and skated only gingerly on Saturday.
“I’m always optimistic,” said Datsyuk. “There’s always a chance.
“I improved a lot and today I skated with the team.”
Still, it would not be surprising if Datsyuk missed the opening two games in Detroit and that Draper gives his groin one extra day to heal before returning for Game 2 on Sunday night.
After all, the Red Wings shrugged off the injuries to key players to close out the Chicago series, although they’ll be up against a more confident and experienced opponent in the Penguins.
“You can see the depth we have now,” said Lidstrom. “A few guys go down and other guys step in and play real well.
“To win a series for us when your top line didn’t score, but (Darren) Helm came up big for us and got the winner, shows we have a lot of depth on our team.”
The Red Wings used their experience and air-tight defensive play to handle the Penguins in six games in last year’s final but expect a tougher run this time as they try to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champion since they did it themselves in 1997 and 1998.
The Penguins, overall the healthier team, are coming off confidence-boosting wins in six games over Philadelphia, seven over Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals and a four-game sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Star centres Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are leading the playoffs in scoring with 28 points apiece and are hungry for another shot at Detroit.
“There are no surprises this year,” said Crosby. “We know what to expect.
“We know our opponent. We saw them last year and saw them a couple of times this year, which wasn’t the case last year. There shouldn’t be any anticipation now.
“We know what to do and we just have to go out and do it.”
The Red Wings’ bumps and bruises are of greater concern because of the schedule for the final. Only three days after eliminating Chicago, Detroit plays on consecutive days, then must play Game 3 two nights later in Pittsburgh.
It didn’t impress Babcock, who joked that he “could have gone bear hunting” between previous series.
“But I guess the bottom line is we’re ecstatic to be here and we’re excited to be playing in the games, wherever and whenever they’re scheduled,” he said.
He saw it mainly as a missed opportunity for the NHL to market what should be a spectacular final, possibly just as good as the Pittsburgh-Washington series that showcased several of the most gifted young players in the sport.
“It’s like the refereeing, they don’t ask me,” added Babcock. “But it seems to me we have two of the greatest teams in the world, star-power-wise.
“I don’t think we need 14 days off, but there’s a reason the NFL, who in my opinion is the biggest promotional horse, maybe beside NASCAR, in sport, takes two weeks off before the Super Bowl. It’s to hype it up.”
There’s plenty to hype.
The teams split the two regular season games they players – Pittsburgh winning 7-6 in overtime in Detroit on Nov. 11 and the Wings earning a 3-0 shutout in Pittsburgh on Feb. 8.
It is the first time two teams have met in consecutive finals since the New York Islanders beat the upstart Edmonton Oilers in 1983 before losing to them in 1984 heralding in a new dynasty.
The Penguins would love to follow the Oilers’ scenario.
There is also the Marian Hossa saga.
The Slovak right winger turned down a long-term offer to stay with the Penguins last summer because he felt he had a better chance to win the Cup in Detroit, where he signed only a one-year deal.
Now his old team is back in the final to face his new club.
With all that’s a stake, a few aches and pains and a tight schedule won’t keep the Red Wings from bringing their best hockey to the rink, said Lidstrom.
“We’re so close to being where we want to be, so that will work as motivation,” he said. “You’re not going to start feeling tired or that you should have had more days between games.
“You’re just looking at the opportunity. You’ll be energized by the crowd or being in the final. You have to be smart, especially in the second game. To keep the shifts shorter and use your whole bench.
“But as far as the fatigue factor, I don’t see it coming in to play.”