Red Wings strive to improve defense: ‘We haven’t been good enough’

Detroit News

Detroit — The Red Wings felt they had made progress in their defensive play last season.

It was a shortened season, and they only played seven teams in the geography-based schedule, but based on the eye test, it was an accurate belief. The Wings were better defensively, and statistically it bore that out, showing the Wings allowed 3.00 goals per game, ranking 20th in the NHL (compared to 31st and last the season before, at 3.73).

But defense has taken a step back this season, with Saturday’s 10-7 loss to Toronto being rock bottom.

The Wings ranked 28th entering Tuesday’s game, allowing 3.58 goals per game.

The Wings understand not allowing as many goals is vital to any sort of success these last two months of the season.

“We are not going to win games by 6-4 or 7-5, or even 5-3,” forward Lucas Raymond said. “We need to win these close games, to be able to pull out 2-1, 2-0, 1-0-type games. The defensive zone is where everything starts. If we can be tight there, we know we can score goals.

“But we need to be way better defensively.”

Be it the new personnel on the team, or young players taking on bigger roles, but the Wings have struggled on the defensive end from opening night this season (Tampa Bay rallied for a 7-6 overtime victory).

“We haven’t been a good enough defensive team really all season,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “It’s something that we continue to work on, and to get better at. Some of that is confidence defensively. But it’s certainly something that we still need to get better at.”

There are plenty of new faces in the lineup, and that, possibly, has affected that end of the rink.

“As you move guys in and out, you have a different look to your team,” Blashill said. “I’d make an argument we probably have some naturally better offensive players this year and maybe not as naturally good defensive players. Sometimes it’s partly that. If you can get your offensive guys to learn how to be great defensively, or even young players to learn how to be in those roles and be great defensively, then you’re going to get a lot better.”

Blashill, and many of the Wings’ players, have talked about the Wings’ team defense and the fact they’ve wanted to be a difficult team to play against this season.

But definitely against Toronto, and for some of the loss last week against Colorado, the Wings weren’t as tough a team to face.

And that resulted in two painful losses.

“I don’t think it’s been enough of our identity,” Blashill said. “I do think our identity at times this year has been an extraordinary high compete level, and high sacrifice level, and I don’t think that’s been to the degree that’s it needs to be.

“Certainly not Saturday, but probably not against Colorado, either.

“When you don’t win puck battles, don’t win puck races, it’s hard to play. You don’t have many of those games (like Saturday’s against Toronto) throughout a year and I know our guys care and are going to do a better job of that. That doesn’t mean you execute every time, or the puck doesn’t go in your net sometimes. But I know that we won’t have a similar type (of game) in terms of the compete and the overall execution.”

Even after Tuesday’s morning skate, Blashill was still perplexed as to the Wings’ low-energy level against the Maple Leafs.

Being it was a divisional and Original Six opponent, with a raucous crowd, one wouldn’t have expected that to be a problem for the Wings.

But it was. Though Blashill was confident that will not happen soon again.

“There’s not a lot from a systematic standpoint that you’re going to correct if you don’t have that,” Blashill said of playing without the needed energy. “That’s the first and foremost thing you have to have, compete and work ethic and sacrifice for each other. We’ve had that most of the season, (and) wee plan on having it again.”

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Lineup changes

Judging from the lines and defensive pairings at practice, then at Tuesday’s morning skate, the Wings’ lineup was going to be tweaked against the Hurricanes.

Again, based on the defensive breakdowns, and the fact the Wings have lost three of their last four games heading into Tuesday, changes were likely one way or another.

“After a game like that you could take most guys out and probably put anybody in,” Blashill said. “It doesn’t necessarily make it right or the best decision for the next game. You can’t make decisions out of frustration. You got to calm down and make sure you’re making wise decisions.”

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan

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