PITTSBURGH - If fatigue was a factor in the Detroit Red Wings' loss in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final, relief appears to be on the way.
Coach Mike Babcock confirmed on Wednesday that veteran centre Kris Draper will be back in the lineup and there's a strong possibility that Hart Trophy candidate Pavel Datsyuk is ready to return after missing five games with a foot injury.
The Red Wings lead the best-of-seven series 2-1 going into Game 4 on Thursday night at Mellon Arena, where they hope to put the Pittsburgh Penguins into a deep hole with a win on their opponents' ice.
Datsyuk skated hard and looked to be his old self during a one-hour practice Wednesday, but Babcock said a decision will be made only after an optional skate on Thursday morning.
"Yeah, I'm healthy now, but we'll make a decision (Thursday)," said Datsyuk, who was in a jocular mood as he addressed reporters after practice. "I feel like I'm 18 years young.
"I have lots of fun. Almost two weeks, you're excited and you especially look forward to playing in the Stanley Cup final. And I feel more comfortable. I can tell you it's not fun to watch. I take lots of beer. It's better when you play in the game."
Datsyuk is also up for the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward and the Lady Byng as the league's most gentlemanly player, not to mention the Pearson Trophy, which is the MVP award as voted on by the players.
"We've played five games in eight days without Pav and, to me, that's long enough," said goaltender Chris Osgood. "We've made it this far, but we don't want to take any more chances."
Datsyuk's addition would change the dynamic of the match-up between the mostly young and healthy Penguins and the older, more injury-damaged Red Wings.
The Red Wings had only three days between finishing off the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference final and starting the Stanley Cup final, which opened with three games in a four-day span.
Game 4 will be the fourth game in six nights.
The Detroit players deny that fatigue played a part in Pittsburgh's 4-2 victory in Game 3, in which the Penguins scored twice and had a 10-3 shot advantage in the third period.
After the teams were tied 2-2 in the first, the Red Wings dominated the second frame 14-4 in shots but failed to beat Marc-Andre Fleury, then went flat in the third.
It has been in Pittsburgh's mind that they can wear Detroit down over time.
As Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik put it: "The longer the series goes, it's to our advantage. I think we got to the third period there and they looked pretty tired. I thought their shots were indicative of that, too."
Nonsense, replied Red Wings centre Henrik Zetterberg.
"We played three in four (days) many times during the year so I don't think it affected us more than them," he said.
The Red Wings came into the series ailing, not only Draper and Datsyuk.
Captain and six-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom missed two games of the Chicago series with a suspected groin injury and, while he was back for Game 1 of the final, it is uncertain if he's fully healthy.
Defenceman Jonathan Ericsson had surgery to remove his appendix only a few days before the final and needed pain killers to play.
Getting Datsyuk back, even if he isn't at full speed, will help even if the young players who stepped into the lineup have done a fine job thus far.
"We have played really well without Pav, but adding a player of his calibre, what he brings to the table, what he can do against another line - he's forcing another pair of defencemen or another line to play defence when he has the puck," said Lidstrom.
Also, Zetterberg has teamed with the defence duo of Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski to limit Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby to one assist in the series, but the Penguins other young gun, Evgeni Malkin, has five points in three games.
Now Malkin may have to deal with Datsyuk, who likes to get possession of the puck and keep it.
Datsyuk's return would spur a chain reaction in the makeup of the Red Wings lines.
He skated between Marian Hossa and Valtteri Filppula, but that likely was only because Tomas Holmstrom, who takes a beating in return for his effective crowding of the opposing net, was given a day off to rest.
Thus far, Filppula has played in Datsyuk's spot as centre of the so-called second line, so he may move to another trio.
Draper skated between Kirk Maltby and Mikael Samuelsson.
Babcock said he hasn't decided which players will come out of the lineup, although it appears that rookie Justin Abdelkader, who scored in each of the first two games of the series, will be one of the odd men out.
Jiri Hudler, who has struggled in the final, could be the other.
Babcock is seeking a better effort from his penalty killers, who are 14th out of 16 teams in the playoffs with a kill rate under 72 per cent. Pittsburgh scored twice on three chances, including Sergei Gonchar's game-winner, in Game 3.
"It's not even the percentage, it's when you give them up," said Babcock. "It was great against Anaheim in Game 7. It was real good against Chicago when we needed it. Last game, we needed it and it let us down."
Rafalski also had a day off Wednesday.