The Red Wings' chances to challenge Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin improved greatly the day before tonight's Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals when their battered blue line got good news.

Six-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom said he will play in the series opener after missing two games with a lower-body injury, and Detroit coach Mike Babcock declared another defenseman, Jonathan Ericsson, fit to play.

Ericsson, though, wasn't 100 percent certain. The rookie can be cut some slack about playing just 3 days after his appendix was removed.

Surgery was necessary after abdominal pains hit him during the morning skate before Game 5 of the Western Conference final with Chicago.

"I'll see how I feel after the morning skate [today]," he said. "It's mostly my decision."

When told his coach said he would play, it sounded like Ericsson was ready to go.

"It's a matter of pain," Ericsson said. "A few shots, maybe I'll be fine."

Pavel Datsyuk, who missed three games against Chicago with an injured foot, said he won't know if he can play until this morning.

"I feel much better and more comfortable," he said. "But I have to wait to see how I feel after I skate."

The defending champion Red Wings will lean heavily on Lidstrom against Crosby and Malkin, both of whom are leading the NHL with 28 points each during the playoffs.

Detroit also would get a boost from Datsyuk, a finalist for league MVP and best defensive forward honors. But the Red Wings definitely don't want to rush him back.

Lidstrom missed the last two games after playing in the first 228 playoff games of his career, dating to his postseason debut in 1992 against the Minnesota North Stars.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma's career has been greatly influenced by the Red Wings' Babcock.

Bylsma didn't begin coaching the Pens until 3 1/2 months ago, yet he has them within four victories of the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 17 years, and the man Bylsma needs to outcoach is partly responsible for him being behind an NHL bench so soon after ending his playing career.

Only 6 years ago, Bylsma was one of Babcock's forwards when Anaheim lost a seven-game final against the Devils. Two years after that, Bylsma spent considerable time with Babcock while serving as an assistant coach of the Ducks' Cincinnati farm club during the NHL lockout season.

Now Bylsma could become the second rookie coach to take over a team during the season and win the Stanley Cup. following Al MacNeil with Montreal in 1971.

"Danny's a good guy," said Babcock, who is in the finals for the third time in 6 years. "He's a quality guy who brought energy on a regular basis. He played on will and determination. *