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Jimmy Howard has a target date for his return … Feb. 11 in Pittsburgh

DETROIT >> As far as recovering from an injury goes, everything is right on track for Wings goalie Jimmy Howard.

Howard took part in his first practice with the team Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena, albeit splitting time with Tom McCollum, since injuring his groin in the first period Jan. 10 in Washington.

“Even though it was just spot duty it felt great to be back out there,” Howard said. “I was out there before on my own with (goalie coach) Jimmy (Bedard) and then came out and did all the goalie drills at the beginning and stayed out for about 30 minutes in practice. It was good, didn’t really feel anything, so we’re just going to continue to push it.”

The best news is he has a target date to return, a week from Wednesday on the road against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“I think we’re right on schedule of where we want to be,” Howard said. “We don’t want to push it too soon, but we also don’t want to be out longer than I have to be, so we’re doing everything I think at the right pace.

“Hopefully against Pittsburgh I’ll be back out there,” Howard continued. “That’s what we’re shooting for. At first we had Phoenix circled, but we thought that would probably be just rushing it a little too much and Pitt will allow me a couple more practices to push it.”

Howard will gradually increase the intensity at practices during the Wings’ trip to Colorado and Arizona.

“Basically I bag myself out there so the legs and lungs are ready to go,” Howard said.

Howard was injured after he gave the puck away behind the net and then lunged his left leg backwards to try and reach the post before Washington’s Troy Brouwer scored just 1:53 into the first period.

He was carted off on a stretcher.

“I think I definitely escaped series injury,” Howard said. “When it happened I was really nervous, not being able to put any pressure on the leg or basically walk. I was on crutches for 24-48 hours. It responded well after a couple of days of being off of it.”

Howard is in the midst of having one of his best seasons in Detroit, posting a 16-7-7 record, with a 2.11 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.

He was also the Wings’ lone All-Star choice, but could not participate at the event because of the injury.

Despite his absence Detroit has gone 7-1-0 with Petr Mrazek getting the bulk of the workload.

“It’s progressed every single day, so it’s good,” Howard said. “We haven’t had any setbacks, knock on wood. Hopefully we can just keep pushing it.”

Message at practice Tuesday was simple … “Our compete level has to be higher and better.”

DETROIT >> Quick update from Wings practice at Joe Louis Arena Tuesday.

The message from coach Mike Babcock was quite simple after the team’s 5-2 loss Monday in Boston.

“The message was clear, our compete level has to be higher and better,” Kyle Quincey said.

The Wings were facing a Boston roster that was missing two of its key players – Patrice Bergeron and Milan Lucic – and trailed 3-1 after the first period after being outshot 19-12.

“Complacency, I don’t know what it is, we weren’t prepared,” Babcock said Tuesday after practice. “You can look at. We went to Toronto, it was five in eight nights. We were fresh (Monday). We had a nice practice day in Boston. We just had three days off for Christmas, we should have skated and competed hard. They were upset. They were missing two key players. They came out and skated us into the ground. Worked us hard, competed and won every battle and every race and in the end we go home feeling like we do.

“I’m a big believer, the sun gets up the next day, that’s how I operate,” Babcock continued. “When the sun doesn’t get up there’s something wrong. It got up today.”

The Wings gave up a season high 45 shots on goal.

“There wasn’t much talking out there,” Quincey said. “Our starts have been too slow. That’s an emphasis going into tomorrow night and the rest of the year.

“I wouldn’t say we’re worried,” Quincey added. “We have to be better. I think if today’s message sinks in we’ll be fine. If we can start competing at the very first second of the game and follow through for 60 minutes we’ll be OK.”

Ouellet only change to Wings lineup tonight against Florida

DETROIT >> Quick update from the Red Wings’ morning skate prior to the hosting the Florida Panthers at Joe Louis Arena.

Defenseman Xavier Ouellet will replace Danny DeKeyser in the lineup.

Ouellet made the two and a half hour trip from Grand Rapids to Detroit on Thursday.

“I think everybody’s been through this, especially in this organization, just like Nyquist, Sheahan, Mrazek, Tatar, even Smitty have been up and down, up and down for almost two years before being here for regular,” Ouellet said. “I’m just going through what everyone else has been through. I understand that. They support me.”

Ouellet has appeared in five games this season, recently filling in for an injured Brendan Smith, totaling a goal, an assist and a plus-3 rating.

“I felt good last time I was here, went down and had a couple good games,” Ouellet said. “I’m back here. I’ve got to be consistent and play the same game I did when I was here last time.”

Wings coach Mike Babcock said that Ouellet will be the only change from the lineup he used in Wednesday’s shootout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Wings do move into first place in Eastern Conference

DETROIT >> The Wings will go to bed Wednesday night and wake up Thursday morning knowing the same thing.

They’re in first place overall in the Eastern Conference.

The point the Wings earned in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at Joe Louis Arena, moved them a point ahead of ideal Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh for first overall in the East.

“Getting points is good when you can get them,” Henrik Zetterberg said. “Obviously we wanted two here at home, but one point is better than no points. If you look how the game ended with a 3-on-4 there for almost a minute I think we’re going to be OK with this tomorrow and move on.”

Niklas Kronwall was sent off for goalie interference with 57 seconds left in overtime.

“I thought we played good,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “It’s over with to me. We got a point. They stole two points but I’ll take it every night. If you play like that you’re going to win.”

Abdelkader skates with team, but has been ruled out for Wednesday; Cleary appears back to being a healthy scratch

DETROIT >> Quick update from Wings’ practice Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena.

Justin Abdelkader took part in his first practice with the team wearing a gray “non-contact” jersey.

He won’t play Wednesday when Detroit hosts the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“Not bad, feeling better,” Abdelkader said. “Today was a good day to skate with the team. No contact. It’s not quite there yet, but it was nice to be out there and skate. Hopefully keep getting better. I think it’s made some good strides over the last few days.”

Abdelkader suffered a slightly separated left shoulder when he was hit by Vancouver’s Luca Sbisa a week ago last Sunday.

“It’s just one of those things where you just can’t put an exact time line on things,” Abdelkader said. “You’ve just got to see how it feels, see the trainers and I guess I’ve got to get my strength back and full range of motion.

“You know you’re getting closer, but you know you’re not quite there yet,” Abdelkader said. “I’m just happy I’m able to be out there and skate with the guys. That’s going to hopefully make it so when I’m ready. I can back into the lineup quicker.”

Abdelkader is off to his best start of his career with seven goals and eight assists through 24 games.

“Just full range of motion and shooting is going to take a little bit,” Abdelkader said. “I think it was positive that I was able to skate out there and do lots of things. Hopefully, it’ll keep coming as quickly as it has the past few days.”

Daniel Cleary appears to be back out of the lineup. He was the extra forward that worked in with the top two lines.

Weiss returns to Wings’ lineup. “It’s a good opportunity for him,” Babcock says.

DETROIT >> Stephen Weiss will be back in the Wings’ lineup tonight at home against the Ottawa Senators.

And for how long he remains in it will be up to him.

“It’s a good opportunity for him, he’s going to have to grab ahold of it, obviously,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said after the team’s morning skate Monday at Joe Louis Arena. “He’s had a good NHL career. It’s been sidetracked for two years.

“The way I look at it is I’m in the day to say winning business,” Babcock continued. “I get up each day and I’m trying to find a way to win the game and I’ll play whoever gives us the best chance to win.”

Weiss, who has played in one other game this season, has played in 47 out of a possible 150 regular season games for his teams since the start of 2013.

“Now it’s up to him,” Babcock said. “We’re in the business of winning games and everyone’s got to command their share of the ice and get their share of the ice time. We’ll see what happens.”

Weiss will play left wing on line Tomas Jurco and centered by Darren Helm.

“I’ve played a few games (at wing), but I’ve been a center all my life,” Weiss said. “It’s just different.

“I don’t know how to really explain it,” Weiss continued. “You’ve just got to be more aware in the D zone, a little bit different coverages. I’m just used to playing center and being able to move the puck both ways. On the wing, you’re more so limited to one side of the ice. It’ll be fine.”

During his two-game conditioning stint in Grand Rapids he scored a goal in each game.

“It was nice to play some minutes and get through the games (with) no problem,” Weiss said. “I would have liked to get a little bit more accomplished, but it was nice to score a couple and get that feeling back. It’s been a while since I’ve scored a goal.”

Nestrasil placed on waivers; Smith out with hand infection from fight; Mrazek starts Thursday

DETROIT >> Quick update from Wings’ practice at Joe Louis Arena before they head out to Winnipeg for a game Thursday against the Jets.

The team placed forward Andrej Nestrasil on waivers. He has until noon Thursday to be claimed by another NHL team. If he’s not he’ll head to Grand Rapids.

“He needs to play in the American Hockey League,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “He’s not quite ready for this level. It’s just one of those things, we need him to play in the American League. Maybe one day he’ll play. His pace was good at the start but you know the league changes.”

Nestrasil has played in 13 of the Wings’ 18 games this season, registering two assists and a minus-3.

Defenseman Brendan Smith didn’t practice Wednesday and will miss Thursday’s game due to an infection in his hand he suffered during a fight midway through the third period with Columbus’ Nick Foligno.

Smith could rejoin the team in Toronto.

Pavel Datsyuk (groin) and Jonathan Ericsson (maintenance day) also didn’t practice. Babcock said Datsyuk will make the trip to Winnipeg.

Petr Mrazek will start in goal against the Jets.

“He’s been great,” Babcock said. “He’s like lots of kids, he plays better than he practices, he’s got to learn how to practice good so he can play good consistently. But he’s a real gamer and he’s been good.”

Stephen Weiss will leave and meet up with Grand Rapids to play a pair of games with the Griffins this weekend. His first conditioning stint with their AHL affiliate was cut short when he suffered soreness in his groin.

“We tried to do it two weeks ago and it didn’t happen,” Babcock said. “He’s got to get himself going. This business is straight forward. The coach and the management, they play the guys they think can help them win. When you haven’t been healthy, you’ve got to get yourself playing. We got an obligation to help him help himself so that’s what we’re trying to do but his part is to play well so he can get in the lineup and get playing.”

Weiss has played one game with the Wings this season.