Detroit — There’s a lot of different terms for it in hockey.
You can call it “bite,” or “edge,” or “sandpaper,” or simple abrasiveness or playing with some snarl.
It goes by a variety of names, and you notice it when you see it on the ice. Fight if you must, sure, but it’s not necessarily about throwing fists as much as it is keeping opponents honest.
The Wings did a better job of standing up for themselves, or defending teammates, and answering other teams’ physicality. But, it was also easy to tell the Wings could use a bit more of it.
They can be better.
“That’s an area that needs to improve,” coach Derek Lalonde said at his season-ending media gathering. “It can be learned within the group. You saw there’s times that we had good pushback. There’s times that we were more engaged, and it probably led to a better performance, or even success that night.”
Two games in Ottawa in late February still loom large when analyzing the Red Wings’ season on many levels. But, definitely, the need for more prickliness in their game.
The Wings lost the back-to-back games on consecutive nights by a combined score of 12-3 and made general manager Steve Yzerman’s decision at the trade deadline later that week easy — sell assets for draft picks.
The Wings weren’t good enough in a lot of areas. But what stood out most from those nights, and played out occasionally throughout the season, was the Wings’ lack of enough pushback when the Senators began to assert themselves physically.
“There were times that we got pushed around, the Ottawa series, that’s a reality in those two games,” Lalonde said of the two blowout losses. “We got pushed around without pushing back much in that situation. It can be learned within the group. In today’s NHL, you don’t have to fight four times or fight after every whistle, but you do need to stick up for teammates and push back.
“You saw this group, at times this year, did that. (But) that’s another area where we’ll try to improve on, either within our group or through free agency.”
Younger players such as Lucas Raymond and Joe Veleno have shown glimpses of having grit and abrasiveness in their games, and when they do, they seem to play with more confidence.
Players such as Dylan Larkin and Michael Rasmussen appeared to get comfortable playing a more physical game, while free-agent additions Ben Chiarot and David Perron definitely contributed heavily to the overall aspect of that department.
But the Wings will need to collectively do more.
“I’d like to see us play with more bite, at times,” Perron said. “Just guys getting in the face, and maybe it’s getting more physical players, but I’m not sure it’s only that. It has to come from within. A guy like Razor (Raymond), he does play his best when he’s feisty and emotional but in control. That goes for every player; it goes for myself as well.
“You have flirted with that line of being too emotional and not enough. Keep pushing for the right standard, for whatever (it is that night).”
Yzerman, in his end-of-season media press conference, agreed the Wings need to play with more competitiveness. But Yzerman’s view of being competitive is broad, though accurate when assessing the Wings’ roster.
“We really need to get better in every area,” Yzerman said. “We have to be a more physical team and a more competitive team. That doesn’t necessarily mean I got to go out and get some 6-foot-6, 250 (pounder) to go out and beat people up. You have to win puck battles, block shots, win faceoffs, and all those little things make a team more competitive. We have to improve in all those areas.
“We got to be more competitive. That goes for every aspect of the game. There’s a lot of areas I’d like to improve upon and that goes with the group of guys here. It’s incumbent upon them to be more competitive as well if we want to make the playoffs, if we want to win Stanley Cups. You got to play harder. We’ll try to add different components as we move along, not just this year, but moving forward.”
Yzerman used defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom as an example of a “competitive” player, who didn’t necessarily have to get into fights. The Hall of Fame defenseman played hard, within the rulebook, all the while countering what opponents would try to do to him.
“Was he out there like Vladdy (Konstantinov), knocking guys down with open-ice hits? No,” Yzerman said. “But he was extremely competitive. He won puck battles. He made plays. He was there when you needed him. He didn’t get pushed around in front of the net.”
Larkin, the Wings’ captain, is an example of a player who regularly, now, pushes back at opponents who cross the line with regularity. Larkin quickly jumps into the fray, defending himself or teammates.
Interestingly, it was Larkin who was on the receiving end of several questionable hits the last couple of seasons. The Wings attempted to retaliate against those hits against Larkin, although most fans felt not enough.
Larkin feels the Wings made progress in that area.
“When we stuck together, played hard, guys blocked shots; we really competed together and you saw scrums and guys were in there together, sticking up for each other,” Larkin said. “In terms of playing competitive games, where it’s just battling and competing, we’re there.
“The Ottawa games were more so where those tough guys were running around and we didn’t have an answer for it.
“There were times this year, I felt guys took liberties. Whoever it was, whatever their role on the other team, their tough guys, they kind of had free nights. That’s something that needs to be addressed, to have an answer to that.”