Commentary

Help or hurt? Zetterberg on fine line

Wings captain pushing rehab with team struggling against Bruins

Updated: April 23, 2014, 8:16 PM ET
By Craig Custance | ESPN The Magazine

DETROIT -- He said it was only a big deal because we were making it one. Reporters and cameras jammed around his dressing room stall as Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg sidestepped specifics on when he might make his 2014 postseason debut.

All he'd say with certainty was that it felt really good to be back out there, skating in his first full practice since recovering from back surgery he had during the Olympics; Zetterberg filled in on a line for Pavel Datsyuk, whose wife just had a baby.

Zetterberg is not feeling any pain but he's not willing to risk any future injuries by coming back too soon. What does that mean for the timeline on his return in this series against Boston? He declined to say for sure. He wouldn't even definitively rule out a return for Game 4, which would be sooner than originally anticipated. He wouldn't confirm that he'll skate in the morning and meet with doctors, either.

Lots of gray area here because, you know, it's the playoffs.

"I have no idea," Zetterberg said. "Because Pav was out, I skated on a line and you guys got a little happy. If Pavel would have been here today, I probably wouldn't have skated on a line and we wouldn't be having this conversation."

So it doesn't sound likely that he returns on Thursday, but after watching the Bruins dominate the Red Wings in Game 3, it must be harder to sit and watch. If the plan was to wait for round two, that game was reason enough to enact Plan B.

It potentially puts Zetterberg in a tough position: come back before he's completely comfortable or watch his team get manhandled by the Bruins. He's already picked up his rehab pace to get to the point he is at right now. Now it's about getting final clearance, a call he says isn't his own, but instead his doctors'.

Henrik Zetterberg #40 of the Detroit Red Wings
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesCaptain Henrik Zetterberg has not played a game for the Red Wings since Feb. 8.

"I'm ahead of pace and there's a reason for that," Zetterberg said. "If there weren't any playoffs or if we were going to the first day of training camp, I wouldn't be doing the stuff that I'm doing now. We want to rush it, but we want to do it at a safe pace."

It's a fine line.

With the Red Wings' scoring struggles -- they have just two goals in three games -- it's become abundantly clear that they're going to need Zetterberg at some point to pull off the first-round upset. As it stands right now, the Bruins have two legitimate top lines they're comfortable playing against anyone. Detroit spent part of Game 3 trying to come up with the right combination for one.

Adding Zetterberg into the mix gives coach Mike Babcock the ability to anchor two lines around Datsyuk and his captain. Even if he's rusty and working himself back into shape, it makes the matchup more balanced than it is now.

"Him and Pav take two lines away, it's up to the third and fourth [lines] to contribute," said Todd Bertuzzi, who skated with Zetterberg at practice. "Usually those guys go status quo, get a goal or two. It's up to three and four to take care of business."

Now, they're not doctors, but the prognosis from Zetterberg's teammates is that he looked good out there at practice on Wednesday. His return definitely brought an element of energy to what could have been a dreary session following an ugly Game 3 loss.

"I've skated with him for about four or five days now, he looks good. He looks strong," Bertuzzi said. "Only he can tell whether it's ready or not. The back is a pretty crucial part of your body, I know he's spent a lot of time and work in it and wants to be back. Obviously if he's available, it'd be a huge part of our team coming back in."

Said Brendan Smith: "I think he looks amazing ... he's one of the guys that we feed off of, he's a leader, he's our captain and he does everything right. He plays both ends of the ice. Obviously, if we can get him back it would be huge for our squad and that would be awesome."

The vagueness of the timeline from the Red Wings may simply be an attempt to create another thing for the Bruins to prepare for as this series shifts into its second half.

Either way, with its depth up front, Boston is ready for it.

"We have a lot of guys, a lot of lines that can take care of business no matter who is out there. That's the element of trust we've built in our team," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "I guess we'll cross that bridge when we get to it. I haven't been told he's in. If he's in, we'll deal with it. We know he's a good player and certainly would be a great asset to their team."

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