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Red Wings Getting Dangerous: Zetterberg and Cleary Eye Thursday Return

Matt Hutter@mahutter12Analyst IJanuary 5, 2010

COLUMBUS, OH - APRIL 21:  Henrik Zetterberg #40 of the Detroit Red Wings celebrates his empty net goal with Dan Cleary #11 against the Columbus Blue Jackets during Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Nationwide Arena on April 21, 2009 in Columbus, Ohio. Detroit won the game 4-1.  (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Hopefully, by the end of this week, the NHL team based in Detroit will begin to more closely resemble the Red Wings.

Massive offseason departures and an unprecedented amount of injuries have, on many nights this season, reduced the Red Wings to little more than a very good AHL team.

Though key roster losses have allowed younger players such as Patrick Eaves, Drew Miller and Justin Abdelkader to fill larger roles and elevate their value to the team in the process, no NHL team can sustain the absence of so many regulars indefinitely and expect to win with any consistency.

Fortunately, the Wings are due to get two very important players back on Thursday, and the timing couldn't be better.

Henrik Zetterberg and Dan Cleary, both out for the past several weeks with shoulder injuries, are expected to be back in the lineup against the hosting Los Angeles Kings.

The game against LA will be smack dab in the middle of their five game road trip.

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"The hump" game as they call it is typically the toughest to win, as fatigue from play away from home and travel begins to set in.

Getting two very familiar and productive faces back in the locker room will certainly help the Red Wings chase away any road weariness.

Additionally, the returns of Zetterberg and Cleary should add fuel to a slowly growing offensive fire.

Forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Todd Bertuzzi have combined for 23 points over the past 11 games, a stretch that also saw the Wings get blanked three times.

The shifty center and hulking forward have found a groove together and, with the return of line-mates Zetterberg and Cleary, will provide Detroit with two healthy scoring lines for the first time in over a month.

While the offense has been woefully lacking during this stretch, the Red Wings have rediscovered their defensive game in a big way.

Not only has rookie-turned-starter goalie Jimmy Howard been fantastic, but the Wings have raised their penalty kill percentage to 81 percent.

This still is only good enough for 15th in the league, but considering the fact that they went through the first few weeks of the season stopping only about 74 percent of the opposition's power plays, the Wings have made huge strides in this area.

In Zetterberg, they not only get back their most consistent scorer of the season but also the heir-apparent to the Red Wing captaincy and one of the hardest workers on the team.

At the time of his injury, Dan Cleary was just heating up offensively, having notched three points over his last five games played.  Hopefully, he'll be able to pick up where he left off.

Cleary is a rare player, the type of guy that can fit in equally well on the first or the third line as a scoring winger or gritty checker.

In fact, head coach Mike Babcock has switched Cleary's role within games, depending on what the team needs at the time.

That's the kind of luxury Detroit has been accustomed to but has been forced to live without this season.

Ultimately, as evidenced by their play of late, Detroit's string of ridiculously bad luck in the health department may prove to be a good thing.

They've had a chance to refine their defensive game, discover and develop some diamonds in the rough, and are now welcoming back some very important offensive weapons.

While the Stanley Cup expectations that have rightfully followed this team for the past decade are all but dashed for this season, Detroit should soon be healthy enough to at least extend their 18 year playoff streak, the longest in professional sports.

With a renewed commitment to team defense, solid goal-tending, and an ever increasing stable of offensively gifted players, Detroit is set to, once again, become a dangerous team to play against.

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