DETROIT - Defenseman Derian Hatcher was expected to provide some toughness for the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Instead, Hatcher s surgically repaired right knee has made it difficult for him to keep up with speedy Nashville Predators, who were roughed up 4-1 by the Red Wings last night in Game 5 of their first-round series.
“I don t want to blame everything that s happened to me on my knee,” Hatcher said. “I m not going to sit around and make excuses - that s just not me.
“It s not the knee, it s the body, the rustiness of not having played that much. It s going to take me a little while to get my game and my conditioning back.”
Hatcher, a 6-5, 235-pound unrestricted free agent whom the Wings signed to a five-year, $30 million contract last summer, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the third game of the season. He had surgery Nov. 6 and spent the next four months rehabilitating.
He returned to the team last month and promptly injured his shoulder, forcing him to sit out three more games.
Hatcher, from nearby Sterling Heights, Mich., finished the regular season with just four assists and eight penalty minutes in 15 regular-season games, most of which came at the end of the season.
He is scoreless in the series against Nashville, has just four penalty minutes and has not delivered any booming body checks.
“Nashville has small, quick guys and they are tough to hit,” Hatcher said. “They don t go down into the corners very often, so you don t get many chances to put your body on them.”
Associate coach Barry Smith said injuries have prevented Hatcher from being his old ornery self on the ice.
“Based on how we play him minutes-wise, fatigue sets in,” Smith said.
“The hardest part for him has been playing in the corners, around the net, on the body, making a pass when you have pressure.
HASEK SURGERY: Red Wings goaltender Dominik Hasek, whose season ended in February with a groin injury, has returned to his native Czech Republic and will have surgery next week.
Hasek, 39, has a partial tear in his groin, and rest was not able to cure the problem, general manager Ken Holland said.
YOUNG BUNCH: Only 10 of Nashville s 24 players had ever skated in an NHL playoff game until this series.
But the Predators are not in awe of the heavily favored Red Wings, who have 11 players with at least 100 games of playoff experience.
“They ve got a lot of experienced guys and they ve won a few Stanley Cups,” All-Star defenseman Kimmo Timonen said.
“We ve got a lot of guys, like myself, who hadn t played in a single playoff game until this year.
“But it s still the same game, it s still hockey.”