DETROIT >> With six games left in the regular season, the Detroit Red Wings will be getting one of the best players in the world back in their lineup.
And they do not have to ask him to come in and lead the way to the playoffs.
After missing 16 straight games to rest inflammation in his left knee, Pavel Datsyuk will play Friday night when the Wings host the Buffalo Sabres.
“He has an ability to change the game,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said after practice Thursday at Joe Louis Arena. “In saying that, we can’t stand around watching him play. We’ve been doing it without him and we’ve got to continue to make sure we’re doing our part. We’ve got to guard against saying, ‘Oh, Pav’s going to look after it.’ He isn’t going to look after it; we’ve got to look after it as a group.”
The Wings are 8-6-2 without Datsyuk over the last 16 games, but have won their last three games in a row, including a 3-2 win over the Eastern Conference leading Boston Bruins on Wednesday.
“I expect him to be one of the best players in the world,” Babcock said. “He knows how to play, so he knows how to play with and without the puck. When he gets his hands on it, he’s going to be good with it. Without it, he knows how to play. I’m not sure how much pace he’ll have, but I saw him battling after practice. If it appears he’s ready and feels confident, then I’m sure he is.”
Detroit also leads the race for one of two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference.
Datsyuk played for Russia at the Olympics, but has only been able to play in two games with the Wings since returning. He last played on Feb. 27, leaving in the second period of a 6-1 win over Ottawa.
“I feel much better now,” Datsyuk said. “(My) knee doesn’t really bother me but not too much like before when it was really bad. It definitely helped (being off) and I feel like I can push now.
“I wish the whole pace picked up after one practice,” Datsyuk added. “The plan is short shifts, not too much ice, stop and go, and then we see.”
Datsyuk will play on a line with Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader.
“He looked awesome, like he’s got lots of energy,” Helm said. “I forgot how good he was with the puck, trying to get it away from him, I really didn’t have an opportunity to steal the puck from him too much. He’s going to be a great addition back in this lineup.
“He’s a guy that we need,” Helm continued. “He slows the game down. Plays with so much poise, skill, backs the other team’s D off a lot. He’s going to be a good help on the power play as well.”
Helm has also missed considerable amount of time this season due to numerous injuries and Abdelkader just returned from a leg laceration.
“It’s going to be kind of a fresh start,” Helm smiled. “I’m kind of fresh, he’s kind of fresh and Abby is kind of fresh so it’ll be a pretty interesting line out there.”
The team has played much of the season without Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg together.
“Things are rolling along right now and hopefully things will continue to roll with him back in the lineup,” Helm said. “I can’t see anything changing. He’s one of the elite players in the league and all he’s going to do is help.”
One thing Datsyuk didn’t lose in his time off was his sense of humor.
“I don’t know if his speed helps me,” Datsyuk said of playing with Helm. “He looks like me, old, slow guy.
The Wings announced they were shutting Datsyuk down for three weeks at the trade deadline to rest his ailing left knee. Friday marks the fourth-week in that timeframe.
Datsyuk, who has 15 goals and 18 assists in 39 games this season, has played in just four games since the Winter Classic.