DETROIT - The Mule was kicking and skating on Friday, but Johan Franzen isn't quite ready to rejoin the Detroit Red Wings lineup yet.
Franzen, who leads the NHL with 12 playoff goals in only 11 games, has been out with recurring headaches and concussion-like symptoms since Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. Although he is feeling much better, Franzen will be sidelined again Saturday night when the Red Wings open the Stanley Cup finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"I'm feeling good," Franzen said Friday after practising for about an hour. "I was excited to be back out on the ice. It was a lot of fun to be with the guys again. I'm out of shape, but otherwise I felt good."
That wasn't the case in the second round when the Red Wings were in the midst of sweeping the Colorado Avalanche. Franzen isn't sure when he got hurt or if one hit did him in, all he knows is he didn't feel right once the series shifted to the Rocky Mountains for Game 3.
There were headaches and symptoms that were unfamiliar. Franzen tried to play through it, finishing out that series and suiting up for the opener of the next round against Dallas. When he didn't get better, he decided it was time to get checked out.
"I was waiting for it to go away, but it didn't," Franzen said. "I thought it was the altitude in Colorado, but it didn't go away."
It's been about two weeks, and now he feels ready to get back into action. He found it difficult to watch the Red Wings play without him, especially when he was enjoying the most productive period of his career.
"He's made huge strides this season from being a checker to a penalty killer to playing on the top two lines, being a big part of the power play," top Detroit defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom said. "He uses his size to his advantage, and once he figured that out he's taking the puck to the net a lot more."
The Red Wings won their first two games without Franzen before dropping two in advance of finishing off Dallas in six games.
"That was big for everyone in our room to realize we can still win without Franzen being a part of our team," Lidstrom said, "but he is a big part of our team, the way he's been playing in the month of March and the playoffs."
Detroit's winning ways made the injury a little easier for Franzen to take, but now a new kind of waiting has him frustrated again. He is set to undergo more tests on Saturday, and set his status as day to day. Franzen said he will have daily checkups until doctors clear him.
"He's flying around, going 100 miles an hour," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "Looks like 100 bucks, no side effects. Looks to me like he's ready to play, but that's why I don't make those decisions. We expect him in the series."
Franzen, a center known as "The Mule," was one of the last Red Wings to leave the ice Friday. He took light stick hooks from Babcock as he raced the puck up ice, absorbed some jabs along the boards from defenceman Brett Lebda, and deftly steered feeds in front from Mark Hartigan into an empty net.
"The guy has got great hands, great size," Hartigan said. "He has one of the hardest shots I've ever seen. Snap shot, wrist shot - it's fun to watch."
He took extra delight when one shot beat likely Hall of Fame goalie Dominik Hasek. Franzen skated away gleefully, pumping his fists with each stride. Whatever is plaguing his head showed no signs of affecting his hands.
"Whenever you're away from it, if you're scoring goals you're feeling, 'Oh, I didn't really miss a step here at all,"' Hartigan said. "That's fun and it's good for your head thinking about that stuff."
Franzen scored 27 goals in 72 games during the regular season. Most impressively, he's scored an NHL-best 27 times in 27 games since March 2 - including a franchise-record 12 in the post-season. He is the first NHL player to score 12 playoff goals since Carolina's Rod Brind'Amour in 2002.
"It's no secret he's a large reason why we got through the first couple of rounds," forward Kirk Maltby said. "Just to get him back in the lineup and back on the ice will be great."