Robby Fabbri returns, again, with what Red Wings were missing

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Robby Fabbri walked to the podium with both knees wrapped in tape after the Red Wings' win over the Maple Leafs Thursday night, then sat down with the sigh of a long day's work. He has three goals in four games since making his season debut last week, one for each torn ACL of his career. He said the "goals are one thing," but he's more relieved that his knee is responding the way he'd hoped.

"Getting back to my game and getting my legs going," said Fabbri. "Goals are coming, so I’m not gonna complain about that, but getting them in wins definitely feels a lot better."

Fabbri's game is about much more than scoring. His legs have been going since the moment he returned. Just ask Anton Lundell of the Panthers, who was plowed into the boards, then flattened at center ice by Fabbri in the span of a couple shifts last week. Fabbri plays the game like it's personal, like he's been wronged by the opponent and wants to even the score. More simply, he plays with the piss and vinegar the Wings have been missing.

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They've also been missing his nose for the net. Fabbri has quietly scored at about a 25-goal pace since joining the Wings midway through the 2019-20 season, Steve Yzerman's first as GM. But it's funny. For all the key players the team has been missing this season, Derek Lalonde said Thursday that Fabbri "was kind of the forgotten injured guy, because he was projected to be back in the new year."

And, if we're being honest, because he wasn't Jakub Vrana, a flashy finisher. He wasn't Tyler Bertuzzi, a first-liner with a 30-goal season to his name. In some eyes, he wasn't even Filip Zadina, a former sixth overall pick. He was just a middle-six forward who has come to represent some lean years in Hockeytown.

Not to Yzerman. Not to the coaches who have been here. And not even to Lalonde, who arrived with an appreciation for Fabbri after watching him from afar: "He was one as a coaching staff we were anxiously awaiting back."

"The coaches talked about his energy. Steve has brought up, 'You’re gonna like him.' I saw glimpses of it in video or playing them in the past, but until you have him every single day, he’s been as advertised from the previous staff," Lalonde said. "Again, for him, hopefully he can sustain it and stay consistent."

To be clear, the Wings do not expect Fabbri to sustain this scoring pace. (But by all means, Robby!) They just want him to continue playing the way he has since he returned, especially Thursday night alongside Andrew Copp and rookie Jonatan Berggren on Detroit's third line. And Fabbri, for the record, would love to continue playing with Berggren, who set him up with a slick pass on the power play for what turned out to be the game-winning goal in a 4-1 final.

"He’s got the skill and the IQ for the game, there’s no question about that," Fabbri said of Berggren. "But his work in practice and on both ends of the ice, he’s easy to play with. ... He’s impressed a lot of us."

It says something about Yzerman's faith in Fabbri that he signed him to a three-year extension last season. A few months later, Fabbri tore his right ACL battling for a puck in the corner -- how else? He had torn his left ACL twice in consecutive seasons with the Blues, the organization that drafted him in the first round way back in 2014. Maybe the most painful part of a recurring injury is knowing the pain so well. Fabbri said earlier this season that he "knew right away when it happened" last March.

"It took me a good five, 10 minutes to calm down in the doctors room knowing what happened. Doc just sat there and waited for me to calm down because I knew what I had to do and what I was going to go through," Fabbri said. "It was an emotional time for me and my family to have go through that again. It’s one of those injuries where it's long, it’s time. It’s not like you can try to come back quicker."

That night, Fabbri said he "let it all out," the anger and the anguish that this had happened to him again. He admitted that bearing such raw emotions is "not really something you do a lot, in front of people at least." But he couldn't hold them in. The next day, Fabbri prepared for surgery and resolved to pour himself into rehab all over again.

"Just put it behind me," he said. "You can't change things, right?"

From the start of his recovery, Fabbri and the Wings' medical staff targeted a return to the team this month. As Lalonde said Thursday night, "They pulled it off almost to the day." With three grafts in his knees, some might say Fabbri is damaged goods. But he's plenty good enough to do damage. The Wings are a better team with their pluckiest player in the lineup, more of a nuisance for their opponents. Fabbri is the kind of player who will take the puck off your stick after the whistle, just because.

"He’s got bite," said Lalonde. "He’s brought energy, he’s brought compete and again, it just helps our depth. And obviously he’s pitched in, he’s got three goals already since his return on a team that struggles to finish."

Fabbri has always played above his 5'10 frame, fearless across the ice. He seems even more invigorated since re-joining the Wings last week. He has fresh legs, for one, if knees that aren't entirely his own. He also might have a heightened love for the game, "an appreciation of playing in this league when it gets taken away from you so many times," said Lalonde. The scars, said Fabbri, are "not something to be proud of."

But each grueling recovery?

"I'm proud that I can put my head down and smile while doing it," he said. "That means a lot. I would definitely rather it the other way if I could, but you can’t change things. You just move forward and get better."

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