The former MSU star proved to be the catalyst for the 3-0 win for the Red Wings Tuesday to take a 2-1 series lead
Abby’s road was long and winding. Six games. Seventeen days. Could only skate. Couldn’t play. A slap shot off his hand left him injured and anxious, watching the playoffs without breaking a sweat.
Abby’s back. You saw him in Tuesday night’s 3-0 victory in Game 3, banging bodies, blocking shots, delivering checks. You saw him on top of Tampa Bay’s Cedric Paquette after Paquette had the audacity to upend Detroit Red Wings goalie Petr Mrazek, pulling his skates out from under him like a magician trying to yank a tablecloth.
Nuh-uh. Not in the Joe. Justin Abdelkader was on him fast and furious. He was on most things fast and furious, perhaps in a hurry to make up for his injured absence. On a night when penalty killing and goaltending got a worthy spotlight — Mrazek’s first playoff shutout — Abdelkader was equally a difference-maker. Not only did he lead a toughness for the Wings that resulted in a season-high 48 hits (if you believe the home scoresheet) but he also made the biggest offensive play of the night.
In the third period, Detroit clinging to a 1-0 lead, Abdelkader took a puck from Henrik Zetterberg and pushed a perfect pass to an angling Riley Sheahan, who snuck behind the sleeping Tampa Bay defense and dumped it in the net.
“I’ll remember that one for a while,” young Sheahan gushed after his first ever playoff goal. As for the man who gave him the puck? “He’s unbelievable. He’s the kind of guy you model your game after. He did a great job for us tonight and we’re glad he’s back.”
The return game
This was the Wings’ first home playoff game of the year. The crowd at Joe Louis Arena was predictably crazy. The octopti were predictably flying. But Abdelkader, 28, hadn’t been in the lineup since April 4. Doesn’t matter how much you skate in practice or ride a stationary bike. Game action is game action. It was surprising the guy wasn’t sucking oxygen in between shifts.
“It’s tiring,” he admitted to the TV cameras after the first period. “I’m a little rusty out there.”
He shook it off pretty well. By the end of the night, he had an assist, six hits, a blocked shot and the joy of a victory.
“Anytime you’re out for over a week, you’re going to be winded,” he admitted. “The good thing is with the injury I could still skate and keep my legs. … I got tired as the game went on. … I think the crowd energized our team tonight and the crowd definitely energized me.”
Abdelkader heard the biggest cheers when he went after Paquette for what he called “a really dirty” play. (“There was no need for it,” he said.) It was one of those little things that inspires teammates and gives the team an edge. Having the pesky Brendan Smith in the lineup didn’t hurt either. Smith was credited with five hits, and the Wings held Tampa Bay to 22 shots (compared to 46 in Game 1). You do that against a team this loaded, it’s saying something.
“Getting (Abdelkader) and Smitty in the lineup helped us today,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “I thought we were way better. We looked like a real hockey team.”
They also have a 2-1 lead in the series.
Between the pipes
But the Wings will only go as far as young Mrazek can take them. It’s funny. He had a huge game in the series opener, despite giving up two goals. He had a shutout Tuesday night — no mean feat against this team — yet there was many open chances, and on another night, the Lightning might have scored two or three. Tyler Johnson hit the bar. Steven Stamkos put one right into Mrazek’s body. Johnson missed a wide-open net.
“When we had the look, it either hit a stick or hit the post or went wide,” bemoaned Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper. The Wings hit posts and crossbars as well. Ping! Ping! It was like a sword-making shop in “Game of Thrones.”
But they only count if they go in. The Wings seem to have Tampa Bay’s number in this building— they certainly have frustrated Stamkos, the Lightning’s star, who looks largely lost in this series. And if Detroit can work its Motown Magic again Thursday night, it takes a commanding grip on this thing heading back to Florida.
It sure helps to have a full roster. Abdelkader, the former Michigan State Spartan, proved that Tuesday. He made the fans happy. He made his teammates happy. And with that amazing pass, he certainly made Sheahan happy. Or — since we’re speaking of Abby’s road — as the Beatles might put in, in the end, the shot you make is equal to the shot you take.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.