DETROIT — In his sixth and finest NHL season, Justin Abdelkader has learned what youngsters like Tomas Tatar and Gus Nyquist are still trying to figure out.
Abdelkader joined them in the Red Wings’ 20-goal club when he scored the game-winner in Sunday’s 2-1 victory over visiting St. Louis. It was his seventh goal in his last 10 games, while Tatar and Nyquist have gone stone cold after leading the Detroit offense through the first half of the season.
Tatar, 24, leads Detroit with 26 goals, but has just two in his last 15 games. Nyquist, 25, is third on the team with 22 goals, but has just two in his last 21 games.
That Abdelkader, 28, has come on at a time when goals are harder to come by — with teams tightening their defenses in the playoff stretch drive — isn’t a coincidence, coach Mike Babcock says. What we’re witnessing is the emergence of a very important player who’s maturing rather nicely.
"It’s interesting how it happens," Babcock said. "You arrive as a kid, and everyone says you have no hockey sense because the league is going so fast. And you don’t have hockey sense because you can’t process it. Then you eventually get back to playing at a level you were at as a kid, or in college or in Grand Rapids, and you become a real good player.
"Abbie’s like Darren Helm. They’re everyday people. They’re honest with their work ethic. They put their work before their skills. And they make you better. Those guys have become really important pieces for us.
"But when they were kids, they were always going in the wrong direction. They were even dangerous in practice. Now they’re real players."
They’re leading by example, too, and teammates notice.
"He’s probably one of our most consistent guys around here in the second half," goaltender Jimmy Howard said. "He’s doing it by going to the dirty areas, the hard areas around the net."
That’s becoming an Abdelkader calling card. Not since Tomas Holmstrom retired have the Wings had a player willing to set up camp around the crease, take the abuse necessary to make plays and score dirty goals.
Abdelkader scored No. 20 from the rim of the crease, pushing the puck across the goal line on a power play in overtime as his stick exploded in his hands.
Erik Cole scored the tying goal early in the third period from between the hash marks, picking up a loose puck, which had caromed off a defender’s head, and chipping it into the net.
"Yesterday we scored from right in front," Nyquist said after Monday’s practice. "That’s something you’ve got to take to your game — get in front and create some space."
Nyquist led the Wings with 28 goals last season, and was their only player to hit the 20-goal plateau. With 21 goals in his first 50 games, it looked like he would clearly surpass that. But unless he heats up fast, he won’t match it.
"Obviously, I want to score. That’s no secret," he said. "I want to help the team as much as possible, and right now I’m not doing that … Hopefully, when one goes in, I can find a way to get a couple more."
Babcock suggests his young guns need to learn what Abdelkader has figured out.
"Sometimes you’ve got it going, and sometimes you don’t," Babcock said. "And when you don’t, you have to stay mentally strong and keep going.
"It’s interesting, as a goal-scorer every time you get the puck, you shoot it. Why? Because it’s going in. Then when you aren’t scoring goals, you don’t shoot it and wonder why it’s not going in.
"Do what you always did and shoot the puck. Get on the inside. Win more battles. Be good defensively and then everything will turn."
That describes Abdelkader’s game perfectly.
"I think I’m just getting older, maturing in this league," he said. "I know how I need to play each and every night. As a young player, it’s tough."
While he’s quick to give credit to his linemate — center Henrik Zetterberg is one of those rare players who makes those around him better — Abdelkader is becoming the kind of player he always imagined of himself.
"I felt like I had it in me, but I also have had a good opportunity here, playing some good minutes, getting more power-play time this year," he said. "Every time you see a few goals go in, your confidence keeps going in the right direction. I just try to go to the front of the net, screen the goalie, get tips, get sticks on pucks and find ways to put them in."
Twenty times and counting so far — doubling his career-high of 10 goals in each of his previous two seasons.
Pavel Datsyuk skated Monday but discounted his chances of rejoining the lineup for Tuesday’s game against visiting Arizona (7:30 p.m. face-off on Fox Sports Detroit). He has a lower-body injury that he said had been bothering him for three weeks before missing the last three games.
"I feel OK, but it’s not ready to play," Datsyuk said after the skate. "I hope to play tomorrow, but I don’t think so. Small chance. I feel better, but it’s not 100 percent."
Darren Helm took the day off from practice Monday after the birth of his second child.