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Return of Justin Abdelkader makes Wings tougher

Justin Abdelkader missed the first two games of the playoffs because of a hand injury. Derek Leung/Getty Images

DETROIT -- When Columbus Blue Jackets forward Corey Tropp was a freshman at Michigan State, the biggest thing that stood out about his then-teammate Justin Abdelkader was he was bigger and stronger than just about anyone in the college game.

In college, Abdelkader was so much stronger than everyone else, it got dangerous.

“He was too strong and powerful -- he’d get to the net so hard, he might kill the goalie,” Tropp said jokingly during a phone call Monday. “He definitely walks the line. He has to. It’s almost reckless within the game.”

Abelkader, a left wing for the Detroit Red Wings, has always been that way. When he played in the USHL, he joined the league as a 17-year-old, which meant he had to wear a full cage. He stuck his head into everything the moment he stepped on the ice in that league, with his cage taking the brunt of the punishment.

“There were multiple times he came back to the bench because his cage was crooked because he had just run over someone,” said Cedar Rapids coach Mark Carlson, who won a Clark Cup with Abdelkader in the USHL.

It’s been a decade since Abdelkader played for Carlson, and the coach still uses him as an example of the type of player he needs guys to be when they join the team. It’s not just about scoring goals; Carlson also wants guys to play a two-way game and push the limits physically -- like Abdelkader did.

When his team won the Clark Cup, Abdelkader didn’t score a single goal but was key to Cedar Rapids’ success.

“He took faceoffs, played physical, did everything to help the team win,” Carlson said. “He didn’t score, but he was instrumental to us winning it.”

The same elements are necessary in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The successful teams have those big, physical forwards who wreak havoc in front of the goalies, who disrupt the opposing team on the forecheck, who jump to their teammates’ defense when necessary -- all the elements Abdelkader brings to the table.

They were also things the Red Wings missed when he sat out the first two games of the first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning with a hand injury.

With the series tied 1-1 and shifting back to Detroit for Tuesday night’s Game 3, Abdelkader’s return helps transform the Detroit attack.

It’s expected he’ll skate with regular linemates Henrik Zetterberg and Gustav Nyquist, with both players mentioning Monday that Abdelkader’s presence means more space on the ice for them.

“He brings space, and you know he’s going to be at the net when you throw it in there,” Nyquist said after practice. “The biggest thing is he’s so good on the forecheck, he wins so many pucks for you, you end up spending more time in their zone because of his big forechecking. It’s great playing with him. [He] gets you space, and it’s fun.”

Said Zetterberg: “He creates a lot of room for me. He has that speed, and it’s going to be fun to play with him again.”

A great example of how Abdelkader creates space for his linemates came the most recent time Tropp and the Blue Jackets faced the Red Wings in March.

Tropp took a run at Zetterberg, and Abdelkader immediately went after his former college teammate before Columbus defenseman Kevin Connauton stepped in.

It was Connauton and Abdelkader who ended up doing the fighting, but the message to Tropp was clear -- there would be no free shots on Zetterberg.

“Exactly,” Tropp said. “I think it’ll be something we laugh about later in the summer.”

Abdelkader’s return to the lineup gives Mike Babcock the ability to split Pavel Datsyuk and Zetterberg to strengthen the top six. With the switch to home ice, the Red Wings will have the opportunity to get a more favorable matchup against the Steven Stamkos line, something that didn’t happen enough in Tampa.

Those changes should help even a series that was looking lopsided at times in the first two games, despite the split.

The other element Abdelkader has brought this season is a surprising knack for scoring goals. Before this season, he hadn't scored more than 10 goals. He finished this regular season with 23 goals in 71 games. The goal scoring was aided by a shooting percentage of 14.9, which is considerably higher than his 8.3 percent career average. He also credits more power-play time, with eight of his nine career power-play goals coming this season.

With the additional scoring comes a confidence with the puck that wasn’t always there for Abdelkader in the NHL. The more that confidence grows, the more he resembles the player who scored regularly at the lower levels.

“When he gets the puck and he’s got a chance, he shoots in on the net. He doesn’t dump in on the goalie and forecheck,” Babcock said of the difference that comes with a more confident Abdelkader. “Year after year, we trade kids because we say they have no hockey sense. That’s not true ... the league is going too fast, and their brain hasn’t caught up. They haven’t relaxed enough. Just the stars do. The rest of the guys, it takes forever. It’s taken Abby a long time. Now he’s back to being who he was.”