Throughout the 2013 NHL season, Detroit Red Wings fans were filled with various emotions. Nicklas Lidstrom had just retired, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter had chosen the Minnesota Wild over the Winged Wheel and there was some concern that this may be a team on the decline.
One of the most prominent confusions among the Red Wings faithful was the curious case of Justin Abdelkader on the top line.
Coach Mike Babcock went to Abdelkader on the first line early after Mikael Samuelsson injured himself and wasn't able to hold up his spot alongside Pavel Datsyuk. Twitter was afire during early-season games about how Abdelkader wasn't a top-line forward.
He wasn't fast enough to keep up with Datsyuk. He wasn't smart enough to make the plays happen. He didn't have the finishing touch.
For the most part, those tweeters and early detractors were right. Abdelkader did not appear to belong on a top NHL line alongside Datsyuk. Yet Babcock stuck with the combination, and his patience has been paying off since the midpoint of the season.
Abdelkader started finding ways to use his wrecking-ball mentality to open up a little space for Datsyuk.
You'll see it every game if you pay attention: Datsyuk takes the offensive zone, then slams on the breaks and hesitates. While the defenders scramble to cover the All-World Russian highlight machine, Abdelkader blows right by them and gets to the net just in time to pick up a rebound from Datsyuk's slipper wrister from 50 feet out.
Or as Datsyuk pulls his classic stop-'n'-gos in the corner, Abdelkader posts up in front of the net, screening perfectly for a dangerous bad-angle shot on net.
Chemistry is everything in hockey, and sometimes it takes some time to develop. Babcock showed why he is one of the best coaches in the NHL by sticking with Abdelkader and Datsyuk when it didn't pay immediate dividends.
The duo has been a terror against the Anaheim Ducks during the first round. Abdelkader has been a disruptive force, scoring timely goals and hitting everyone in his path while Datsyuk just continues to do what he always does.
Now, during the most important time of the year, Abdelkader appears fast enough. He is playing smart enough and has developed enough of a scoring touch to belong on the Red Wings' top line—if for no other reason than his channeling his inner Tomas Holmstrom on every shift.