Why Detroit Red Wings need to keep ‘getting slapped’ to learn lesson about team defense

Detroit Free Press

The challenge right now for the Detroit Red Wings is to prove they are serious about the identity they want to establish.

They’ve demonstrated their competitiveness when their plan begins with tight defense — but they’ve also faltered without said defense, especially on the road. It leaves them, once again, looking to the respite of Little Caesars Arena as a chance to regain focus.

“You look at our most recent struggles, we had a couple practice days and came out and won five in a row,” captain Dylan Larkin said after Friday’s 7-3 dismantling by the Colorado Avalanche in Denver. “We need to get back to work at home and hopefully get some guys back and see what can happen.”

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The Wings’ next game is at home, Tuesday against the New York Islanders. Coach Jeff Blashill said forward Tyler Bertuzzi is expected to be ready after a 10-day stay in COVID-19 protocol; it’s not clear if defenseman Marc Staal, who also has been in protocol, will be available. The Wings traveled under advanced restrictions on the trip to St. Louis and Colorado — meaning players had to eat in their rooms, like last season —in the hopes of containing the damage, as the virus has sidelined Bertuzzi, Staal and defenseman Danny DeKeyser in recent weeks.

Dealing with absences is part of the NHL grind. The Wings this season have shown the depth to withstand them, a distinct change from previous seasons. But they can’t do so when opponents are allowed to wheel around Detroit’s zone as freely as the Avs were the first half of Friday’s first period; Colorado turned that freedom into a 3-0 lead.

“If we want to win more on the road and we want to win later in the season, and we want to win against great teams, we have to keep working to be better defensively and we have to keep working to manage the puck,” Blashill said.

“We’re going to get back to work and get better, especially in our D-zone coverage, because we can’t give up nearly the number of chances we gave up. But we did create lots of chances, and I’m happy for that. But we’ve got to grow here. We’ve got to get back, take a breath, and then get ready for a big game on Tuesday.”

The Wings (13-12-3) are 9-3-2 at LCA. Their five-game winning streak featured four home games sandwiched around a victorious outing in Boston. The absence of fans last season certainly emphasized their importance, but again, the Wings aren’t going to succeed anywhere if they don’t establish a defensive identity. Unlike the Avalanche, averaging with a league-leading 4.38 goals per game, the Wings don’t have the offensive power to mask defensive lapses.

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“Without a doubt, when you’re on the road, you have to be great defensively and manage the puck great,” Blashill said. “I don’t think, even at home, we’ve been great defensively and managed the puck well enough. So if we want to be a team that can win both at home and on the road, we have to do that better. It’s a lesson that our guys are learning. Sometimes you have to keep kind of getting slapped in the face to continue to realize especially the puck management part of it. You get away with it at times at home because momentum is totally different.

“I think our team understands that we can be a really, really good team. We have to get back to work and I think our guys have a self-belief, and that belief has been earned through the work they’ve put in, and now we just have to get back and play a really good game on Tuesday.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

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