How have Detroit Red Wings climbed back into playoff race? Buying in on defense-first hockey

Detroit Free Press

If the Detroit Red Wings are going to make the playoffs, if they’re going to be more than anyone expected this season, we can look back at this impressive five-game road swing as the moment when this team took a big step forward and hinted at its potential.

The Wings went 4-1 on a wild trip that started out west, finished back east, required them to cross the contingent twice and play five games in four time zones. Apparently, the NHL has ceded full schedule-making authority to Cocaine Bear.

In the process, they picked up eight points, inched closer to a playoff spot, and became one of the NHL’s hottest teams, going 7-3-0 in their past 10 games and winning nine of their past 13.

So if you go to tonight’s game against the New York Rangers at Little Caesars Arena, give the Wings and coach Derek Lalonde a standing ovation. They deserve it for not only what they’ve done, but for also for how they’ve done it.

Heck, even if you’re watching from home, go to the window right now, open it and yell at the top of your lungs: “The Wings are in the playoff hunt!”

OK, that last part was just for me. I want my bosses to hear you and expand our travel budget for the rest of the season.

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Honestly, I didn’t expect this. Did anyone, with such a brutal trip late in the season? The only thing missing was Cocaine Bear, I mean the NHL schedulers, booking the Wings standby tickets on Southwest Airlines.

Didn’t matter. They not only persevered, they flourished and did more than simply win games. They established a sustainable blueprint for how to win tough games with sound defense, eliminating risk and playing patient, opportunistic offense.

These are things Lalonde has been preaching all along. But to see it put into practice during such a key part of the season is something more.

During the trip, the Wings set a franchise record — a franchise record — by taking 25 or fewer shots in seven straight games, while winning six of those seven games. It speaks to the nature of quality chances, not shear quantity of firing the puck from anywhere. It was none other than Pius Suter who acted like Lalonde’s risk-management spokesman, even after he scored twice in Tuesday’s 3-1 win at Washington.

“I think we had a defense-first mentality,” Suter told Bally Sports Detroit. “Just play solid D and then we didn’t really chase the offense. And then it comes to you, you know? Like we’re going to the D zone and it’s going to come back to you.”

Suter embodied that philosophy on both of his goals. The first came when he scored shorthanded for a 2-0 lead during the Caps’ five-minute power play late in the first period after Dylan Larkin was ejected after getting a major and misconduct penalty for cross-checking T.J. Oshie.

By the way, the penalty looked entirely accidental. Larkin looked surprised and extended a hand toward Oshie immediately as play continued. I’ve never seen someone deserve a major and the Lady Byng on the same play.

That meant the Wings were without Larkin, their best player and their best defensive forward, for most of the game and obviously during the five-minute power play, when the Caps could continue scoring for the entire duration. A missed Caps shot resulted in a lucky bounce toward the blue line, where Suter took the puck and beat Darcy Kuemper clean on a 2-on-1 break.

The Caps did score during the major penalty kill, but they only had three shots on net in five minutes. If that wasn’t impressive enough, the Wings held the Caps without a shot after they pulled Kuemper with 2:51 left.

The Wings stayed true to their defense without Larkin, who’s also their top faceoff man, as Lalonde had to shuffle the lines down a center and with only 11 forwards. Yes, the Caps were without their top player because Alex Ovechkin was in Russia attending his father’s funeral. But Ovechkin’s absence was planned, Larkin’s wasn’t.

It didn’t matter. The Wings held the Caps to six shots in the second period. Early in the third, Suter scored the game’s final goal on a play that highlighted the difference between the Caps and the Wings in the game.

Defenseman Nick Jensen made a bad choice when he took control of the puck behind his net and passed it to center Evgeny Kuznetsov alone in the slot. Jensen should have moved the puck along the boards or at least into the corner. Kuznetsov sensed Suter bearing down on him, so he tried to quickly chip the puck out of the zone. Instead, the puck came to Suter, who quickly snapped it past Kuemper.

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People like to talk about puck luck and, yes, there’s some of that. Suter’s first goal involved a lucky bounce. But there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s about practicing and internalizing good habits and a sound philosophy that reduces risk.

“I just love our commitment to the defensive side of the game,” Lalonde told Bally Sports Detroit. “Especially you’re losing a center. Little chaos with some of the lines and some of the line changes.

“But again, our guys managed to do extremely well and despite where we’re standing in the standings, how important this game was, standing-wise, it was just an all-around just great effort.”

Lalonde knows safer living is better in hockey, a primarily defensive game. Suter and his teammates look like they understand that, too. The Capitals didn’t. That’s why the Wings leapfrogged them in the standings and why they might leapfrog even more teams this season.

Contact Carlos Monarrez: cmonarrez@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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