DETROIT -- At first, Mike Babcock was succinct.
"He'll play," the Red Wings' coach said yesterday.
Then, he hedged a bit on the chances that forward Pavel Datsyuk will be in the lineup tonight for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final against the Penguins.
Datsyuk, a finalist for the Hart Trophy as league MVP, has missed seven games because of a foot injury. He was close to playing Thursday in Game 4.
"Prior to [Thursday's] game, we were hoping Pav was going to be in, but we weren't planning [on it]," Babcock said. "Now, we're hoping Pav's going to be in, and we're planning that he's going to be in. But he's still got to be in."
If Datsyuk does return, it could be at center with Marian Hossa and Tomas Holmstrom, or it could be on the wing with Valtteri Filppula and Hossa.
"There's always this talk when one of the best players cannot play," Hossa said. "It would be a huge boost and help for the team if Pav can play."
Especially if Datsyuk can come back at something even close to the top of his game.
"How does he do when he gets out there?" Babcock said. "He missed a chunk of time. Is he capable of those situations? Is he playing on the wing or is he playing in the middle? We'll see. I don't know the answer, and I'm being honest with you, just because until I see him play, I won't know."
Datsyuk's strong two-way play might help Detroit contain Penguins center and fellow MVP finalist Evgeni Malkin, who has two goals, five assists in the series.
"Well, we'd like Pav to have the puck for 18 or 20 minutes like he normally does," Babcock said, then gave a wry smile. "That's a great concept. When he has the puck, they don't have it. It's not even playing defense; you just have the puck. You don't have to worry about it. Plus, you're faster coming out of your zone. You're faster in the neutral zone.
"You know, [Datsyuk] is up for the Hart Trophy, too. "
Holmstrom has two goals this postseason, both in a first-round sweep of Columbus. The man who likes to park in front of the net, block the goaltender's view, deflect in shots and recover rebounds has gone 16 games without scoring.
"He was taking some ribbing in the [dressing] room the other day -- 'Are you ever going to get your stick on one?' " Babcock said. "That's just the way it goes in our room. "You need him to get his stick on one. We need him to tip one in on the power play. We need him to get the puck back on the power play. ... That's one of Tommy's greatest skills. As much as tipping it, we've got to get the puck back and do a better job of that as a group."
Malkin and Sidney Crosby are easily the top priority for Detroit to key on defensively. Veteran defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom has been on the ice against both, one of many difficult assignments he has drawn over the years.
Lidstrom didn't want to pick out one forward who has been his most difficult assignment, but one familiar to Penguins fans cropped up -- Hall of Fame center and co-owner Mario Lemieux.
"I played against Lemieux when he was still playing," Lidstrom said. "He was a hard player to play against. "I think the combination of speed and size was hard. It's always tough when you have that speed because you have to close that gap."
An optional practice at Joe Louis attracted nearly none of the regular players, and that was the idea.
Babcock said earlier in the series that most of the team's practices and morning skates would be optional in the sense that a player or three or five might need to stay off skates and work on something else. Yesterday, though, was more of a meeting-only day for the Red Wings after the series featured four games in six nights.
"We need to get rested," Babcock said.
There won't be much of a morning skate today.
"We skated [Thursday] because that's what we wanted to do. We thought it was a good idea to flush [everyone's lactic acid levels].
"We're obviously not doing that [today] because it didn't work. And that's how scientific that decision is."