Friday, May 24, 2013

Muskegon's own. Abdelkaer rising fast for Detroit

By Larry Wigge

His name was nowhere on the scoresheet ... yet Justin Abdelkader was perhaps the most prominent players in the game.

The seventh-seeded Detroit Red Wings won 2-0 over the Chicago Black Hawks, who had the best record in the NHL, to take a commanding 3-1 lead in their Western Conference Semifinal series.

Defenseman Jakub Kindl's shot from the blue line on a power play at 10:03 of the second  period broke a scoreless tie.

"Biggest goal of my life so far," said defenseman Jakub Kindl. "There's not a lot of time out there so when I got it. When the defenseman went down to one knee, I went short side.

"There was a great screen by Abdelkader and the goalie never could see it."

That play kind of has a strange ring to it. Oh, I know why. Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom used to make a living by screening the opposition goal -- often tipping shots in.

But Ablekader, who stands 6-2, 215-pounds, is one of the fastest players in NHL. He can do things with his shot, with his hits and ... with his body.

Recently, the Muskegon, Mich., native, was put on the Red Wings top line -- with Henrik Zetterberg and Danny Cleary. Sometimes, Abdelkader has been out there with Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. 

"Abby did a great job for us," Zetterberg said. "He skates well. He's really physical. He makes room for me and Pav. Tonight, he had a lot of energy (he missed the last two games because he had a suspension for hitting Anaheim's Toni Lydman) and it was nice to see."

Pretty heady company for the 26-year-old former Michigan State player, who came into the game with only 10 goals and three assists to his credit during the regular season. Heck, Abdelkader only had 18 goals in his 209 game career entering this season.

Hmmm? What gives.

In 16 minutes, 31 seconds of Game 4, Abdelkader has two shots on goal but a game-high five hits.

In Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs against the Anaheim Ducks, Abdelkader's shorthanded breakaway goal broke a 1-1 tie en route to a 3-2 victory. 

Big goals? Abdelkader scored the winning goal for Michigan State in the 2007 national championship game.

Aha, the legend of Justin Abdelkader continues to grow.

From zero goals in the four regular-season games over the last two years and no goals in his first seven playoff games leading into the Stanley Cup Final, where his two goals currently is more than Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined and he became the first rookie to score in consecutive Cup Finals games since Minnesota's Dino Ciccarelli in 1981.

"I've said this guy is a player you're going to talk about for a long time," coach Mike Babcock. "He's going to be a physical force in the league forechecking and he's going to have enough hands to be around the net and play with the good players and he's going to be a net presence."

And to top that off, Abdelkader was pretty confident his Mother's Day gift would be able to top his dad's.

That was even before he made his playoff debut for the Red Wings.

As if tickets to the game weren't enough, Abdelkader went out and recorded an assist in the Red Wings' 4-1 victory against the Anaheim Ducks in Game 5 at Joe Louis Arena.

Abdelkader wasn't sure what his dad, Joe, ended up giving his mom, Sheryl, but his first NHL point immediately trumped all previous Mother's Day gifts over the years.

Joe Abdelkader is a school teacher and Sheryl is a nurse. Honest beginnings. His first piece of sports memorabilia is a Red Wings jersey and his favorite player was naturally Steve Yzerman.

The Abdelkader's were there in front of the TV set for Justin's first goal -- sort of.

"We both kind of nodded off between periods," Joe Abdelkader said. "Then, I woke up and said, 'Sheryl, he has the puck.' And, then he shot and scored. We both jumped so high we almost touched the ceiling."

People were talking about Abdelkader ...

Like Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma. He was telling a gaggle of reporters at the 2009 Stanley Cup finals that he also grew up in Muskegon and was one of the first players from that area to make it to the NHL, but ...

"I never had a billboard in Western Michigan, Justin did," Bylsma said with a little tough of jealousy in his voice. "I don't know if he still does. But I was fully aware of this kid from Michigan growing up. 

"I remember seeing the billboard and I was a little jealous I never got one -- not that I'm a billboard type of guy. But he got it."

As it turns out the billboard in Muskegon wasn't for Justin's play at Mona Shores High School, where he was Michigan's Mr. Hockey in 2004 when 37 goals and 43 assists in 28 games. But rather it was a billboard for a knee injury he had in high school and the rehab he had afterward.

"The billboard was for a physical therapy unit that helped me with my rehab after knee scope when I was in high school," Abdelkader said a little embarrassed to know that the whole world now knows of this billboard he thought he had lived down before he got to Michigan State, where NCAA rules said the sign had to come down and no prohibited him from being involved in any sort of advertisement. "It was weird, actually. I had surgery, worked on getting my knee back in shape and there I am splattered all over a billboard, showing my knee and how I could now do things I couldn't when I injured the knee."

Bylsma's jealously aside, he is proud of this Muskegon kid, who went on to go to Michigan State University, was selected in the second round, 42nd overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft by the Red Wings. He went on to score the winning goal with 18.9 seconds left in the NCAA championship against Boston College in 2007. And now, more publicity against another Muskegon native.

"Even when he was young, I followed his career, even though I had not met him," Bylsma said. "Then when he went on to Michigan State and I remember hearing talk about where he was going to rank as a pro. I was fully aware of him, though I never got a chance to meet him until this year in Grand Rapids, where I met his family."

So, Dan what do you think of Justin's play so far against your team?

Added Bylsma, "When your team plays well enough and you have a great team concept, you give everybody a chance to put on the cape on any given night. Unfortunately for us he's been wearing it for two games here."

In Game 4, Detroit's Jimmy Howard got the 2-0 shutout over Chicago. Howard is a big fan of Abdelkader. 

"Abby, he's a very hard worker. He stays out after practice working on that sort of stuff with the goalies and it paid off for him," Howard said. "He's playing great and that's what you need in the playoffs. He's definitely right there for us. It's great to see. He's been our back-stopper all year so we expect nothing less."

So far, Justin Abdelkader learns fast. You couldn't tell that from the billboard.

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