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NHL Weekend

A comeback for the ages Add to ...

He was talking about Johan Franzen and the miracles of modern medicine when the Detroit Red Wings' thoughtful general manager Ken Holland steered the conversation to Bobby Orr, one of the all-time greats.

"If Orr was playing today, he would have played 20 years. Those types of injuries - they're two-to-four week injuries now," said Holland - and who can argue the point?

Orr's career came to an end because of a series of invasive surgeries that represented the standard of care for his era. Franzen is lucky enough to be playing in the here and now, where a player can undergo reconstructive surgery on his anterior cruciate ligament early in the season - and then come back and play at a high level later that same year.

It used to be that, even with the surgical progress they made, a player needed time - sometimes a year's worth - in order to get his legs under him again. Franzen, doing skating drills by himself long after most of the Red Wings' regulars had left the ice the other day, was digging in this way and that way and showing no signs of any lingering after-effects.

This, of course, represents astoundingly good news for the Red Wings, his NHL employers. In each of the past two seasons, as Detroit advanced twice to the Stanley Cup final, Franzen has been their most consistent sniper, with 25 goals in 39 playoff games.

That he is back here, playing, with the Red Wings down a game to the Phoenix Coyotes in their Western Conference quarter-final playoff series is one of the reasons Detroit is favoured to win by so many.

It really is a comeback for the ages. "It used to be a season-long injury, then it became a six-month injury and now it's a three-to-four month injury," said Holland. "Actually, the doctor who performed the surgery told us at three months, he was ready to go. We kept him out an extra month. We wanted to be 100-per-cent sure. He's got a lifetime contract; he's too important for us to take that chance.

"So we said we were going to keep him out until after the Olympics. Well, then it got to be three games before the Olympics and he was dangling around and shooting pucks in the top corner. We finally said, 'why wait?' "

Franzen injured his knee in the home opener against the Chicago Blackhawks back in October, one of a series of major injuries that forced the Red Wings to spend much of the post-Olympic stretch simply battling to get into the playoffs.

"Our team is just excited to be together as a team," said Holland. "The first game after the Olympics was the first time we had our entire team together. Franzen had played three games; (Henrik) Zetterberg missed five weeks; (Valtteri) Filppula missed 10 weeks; (Niklas) Kronwall played three or four games from the first of November when he got hit by (Georges) Laraques until the Olympic break. So our team was happy to get healthy, individually and collectively, and just thought 'let's see what we can do.'

"After the Olympic break, we won a big game right away against Colorado and we started coming to the rink finding ways to win games, as opposed to hoping we were going to win games. All that adversity we had early on, it either breaks you - or allows you to get stronger."

For all that, it was Franzen's recovery that had his teammates marvelling.

"We saw him right around Christmas and New Year's and it already looked as if he was ready to play," said team captain Nicklas Lidstrom. "He was still a month or six weeks away from playing, but the way he was skating and the way he was handling himself, it just didn't look like he had the type of injury he had."

Lidstrom, Franzen and Zetterberg, three of the Red Wings' lynchpins, exited the Olympics earlier this February than they hoped, after winning gold in 2006. None seem any worse for wear. Nor were they feeling the residual effects of an Olympic hangover, said Lidstrom. In fact, Franzen and Zetterberg are fresher now than usual because of all that injury time on the sidelines.

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