In a photo made with a fish eye lens, Detroit Red Wings\' Daniel Alfredsson tries to check Boston Bruins\' Andrej Meszaros (41) during the third period of Boston\'s 4-1 win in Game 2 of a first-round NHL hockey playoff series in Boston Sunday, April 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
DETROIT - When Henrik Zetterberg aggravated a back injury at the Olympics, Zdeno Chara was there to lend a helping hand.
As the two captains of their national and NHL teams left Sochi, Russia, Zetterberg went to reach for his backpack only to be told by Chara that he wouldn't let him carry it. Zetterberg recently called Chara part of his rehab.
"He was obviously in severe pain," Chara said Thursday. "Just tried to help out as best I could."
Two months ago Chara did his part in helping Zetterberg, but starting Thursday night the Boston Bruins defenceman is tasked with trying to stop the Detroit Red Wings forward. Zetterberg returned to the lineup for Game 4 as the Red Wings sought to tie the Atlantic Division semifinal series at two games apiece.
Zetterberg needed final clearance from doctors before coming back, but in doing line rushes at the morning skate with Pavel Datsyuk and Justin Abdelkader, the 33-year-old looked ready.
"I think he's kind of raring to go," Abdelkader said. "He's been looking really good for the last while. It'd be a huge boost, getting our captain back, kind of unexpectedly."
Zetterberg's most recent regular-season NHL game was Feb. 8. He reinjured his back while playing for Sweden at the Olympics, getting through just one game before the herniated disk forced him out for the remainder of the tournament.
"He wanted to go there and play," Swedish teammate and Bruins forward Loui Eriksson said. "He was in his room all the time after the first game. It's tough."
After taking some extra time in Sochi to rest his back, Zetterberg flew home on the charter flight that left following the quarter-final round. He underwent surgery Feb. 21 and knew he'd be on the shelf for a long time.
Zetterberg eyed the second round for a return, and even after practising Wednesday wouldn't commit to being back in the lineup. That was his first full practice with the Red Wings, and though he called it "optimal" to go through a few more, Zetterberg said that's unlikely to happen in the playoffs.
"One of these days you just have to make a decision," he said.
That decision came Thursday, even as coach Mike Babcock acknowledged not being sure what Zetterberg would be able to bring in his first action in more than two months.
"I can expect him to provide great leadership, both in the room and on the bench, so if we get nothing else, that's good enough," Babcock said. "But I think he's pretty competitive, he's been working at it. Obviously when you have back surgery, they don't let you come back early. So the doctors and him have had a plan and he's been working on it."
While Zetterberg drew in the Red Wings needed to start backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson at the last minute. Regular starter Jimmy Howard led the team out onto the ice for warm-ups but was pulled with the flu.
The crowd in Detroit was already fired up for Game 3, which marked the start of the franchise's 23rd straight playoff appearance. Defenceman Brendan Smith predicted fans at Joe Louis Arena were going to be even more jacked up to welcome back Zetterberg.
"They're definitely going to erupt," Smith said. "They should. I erupt when I see him on the ice."
Zetterberg had 16 goals and 32 assists in 45 regular-season games. In his Stanley Cup playoff career, he has 114 points in 123 games.
"He's definitely a great player," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "That being said, it doesn't change our game plan. We respect the Red Wings as they are. They're a great team offensively, and they have a lot of firepower. He's definitely another addition to that."
Winger Todd Bertuzzi made his series debut after being a healthy scratch for the first three games. He replaced Tomas Jurco in a decision that wasn't easy for Babcock.
"We're taking out Jurco, who's got great speed and plays real well," he said. "Why would you do that? That's a great question, I asked myself that a hundred times yesterday and then just before I was trying to fall asleep I started thinking about it again, so then I didn't sleep. I don't know. I'm trying to do the right thing."
Daniel Alfredsson (back) missed his second straight game, though Babcock said trainers were optimistic the former Ottawa Senators captain would be ready for Game 5 Saturday back in Boston.
"Could you throw him in the game? Probably," Babcock said of Alfredsson. "He hasn't practised in a while. We don't really know. We're trying to put the best lineup we can on the ice to help us win."
Follow @SWhyno on Twitter