Tonight, the Detroit Red Wings will welcome back Brad Stuart to the lineup. Stuart has been sidelined since breaking his jaw in a game against the Calgary Flames on January 7th. Tom Kostopoulos received a six game suspension for the hit.
Stuart will take his regular place on the top D pairing, with Nicklas Lidstrom on his left side. It will be interesting to see how much the Red Wings use him in the first few games back from his injury. Pavel Datsyuk only played about 16 minutes in his first game back. Likewise for Danny Cleary. Tomas Holmstrom has been relegated to fourth line duty in his return. None of them regularly log the kind of minutes that Stuart eats up for Detroit though.
Stuart has already expressed concerns about the cage he will be wearing to protect his lower jaw, specifically related to locating the puck in his feet and his peripheral vision. Will the Red Wings choose to play him less than he had been until he can safely remove the cage and return to his full abilities? Or will he jump right back into the swing of things and play 22+ minutes?
With Stuart back though, the Wings still won’t be fielding their “top 6″ defenders. Ruslan Salei, who was allowed to fly out to California to be with his family (his wife was expecting their third child around Valentine’s Day), was given the green light to stay out there an extra day once Stuart was cleared to play. As I predicted on Tuesday, Jakub Kindl will get another game, before what could be a long break from action.
The Wings will hoping for a better result than the last time they faced Lightning goaltender Dwayne Roloson. They dropped that decision 4-3 in overtime on New Years Eve, when Roloson was a member of the New York Islanders. He was traded soon after to the Lightning.
The key to beating the Lightning tonight will be containing the top line of St. Louis, Stamkos and Downie. Downie is the Holmstrom of the Lightning’s top line in a sense. He is the physical presence who battles for the pucks and makes space for the two skilled players. St. Louis is one of the best play makers in the game, and Stamkos leads the league in goals and points. If you can prevent this line from dominating the game, then you make your job much, much easier.
The two teams are currently tied in the NHL standings (74 points apiece, although Detroit holds the tie-breaker of playing one fewer game), so let’s look for the Wings to come out sharp and not let a good opponent get ahead early.