November 16, 2013 at 1:07 am

Gregg Krupa

Return of Jonathan Ericsson helps keep slumping Red Wings upbeat

Detroit — He is, by any measure, an unassuming presence.

Quiet, big, strong, unflappable, positionally sound — Jonathan Ericsson made himself a “shutdown defenseman” in the NHL.

But he passses largely unnoticed, by virtue of doing his job.

Ericsson was little noted again Friday, as the Red Wings lost in the shootout to the Capitals, 4-3, extending their home losing streak to seven games.

But until they stumbled a bit, again, in the first 12 minutes of the third period, yielding a two-goal lead, with Ericsson back in the fold, things felt more solid on the back end for the Wings.

Ericsson snuck up on Red Wings fans. Sixth and seventh on the depth chart back a few seasons, his role is now the No. 2 man next to Niklas Kronwall in the top defensive pairing.

His profile may remain fairly low, but his role is enormous, especially on the Wings’ developing defense.

He plays against the opponents’ best offensive players and is on the top unit killing penalties.

When he went down Oct. 22 with what effectively was a separated shoulder, the Red Wings missed the 22:09 he is averaging on the ice.

It has been two seasons now since Mike Babcock drew everyone’s attention to “Big E,” by asserting that he helped solidify a penalty kill that had begun to stumble, midseason.

“Obviously he’s a real good player for us, a good defender,” Babcock said Friday, happy to have him back.

And while Ericsson will never be confused with Nicklas Lidstrom for his offensive skills, he is a more-than-reliable passer on a team seeking to reconstitute its transition game.

He is yet to post a 20-point season, but Ericsson can regularly launch the attack. And that is no longer a routine accomplishment for the Red Wings.

“He can pass the puck,” Babcock said, continuing his evaluation of his returning defenseman. “Huge size — he gives us one more high-end guy to get the puck going, and we’ll be a better team.

“Your forwards need the puck, and he can do that — plus play against real good players.”

With the Red Wings in overtime and the Capitals with a man advantage, Ericsson played most of the penalty kill. Seconds after the penalty was killed, he was right back out there, double-shifted, when Washington took a penalty, and the sides were 3-on-3.

How much do the Red Wings depend on Ericsson?

After missing all of their games since Oct. 19, he double-shifted in the 63rd and 64th minutes of the game.

“It’s a good test, right away,” Ericsson said of playing the offensively powerful Capitals and Ovechkin.

“It should be fun.”

But once again the Red Wings played well, beating their opponents for most of the game, only to yield too much energy, too much ice, too many chances and two goals to the Capitals in the first 12 minutes of the third period.

They keep trying, and falling short.

It is getting habitual. It is worrisome.

Having Ericsson back makes a big difference, as the Red Wings continue to seek a pivot point early in their season.

“I think we’ve been a little unlucky, too,” he said, after the morning skate. “But, so far, it’s been small details at the end of games and things we don’t have to give up that we do.”

By the end of the day, they had done it again.

But the guy they would proffer as their ace shutdown man is remaining positive.

“I think we’ve been on the right track, and I think we’ve been playing pretty well,” Ericsson said. “We just haven’t gotten the point that we wanted.”

The Red Wings are faltering. But they believe they are doing much right, and it is a matter of time.

Their confidence is battered, clearly.

But looking back and seeing that big No. 52 solid on the blue line is no small boost.

If their depth holds, and with Ericsson in the lineup, things should begin to turn.

“I think we’re fine, as a whole,” he said. “We’re giving up a few too many good scoring chances that we don’t have to — easy fixing.

“But, other than that, I think we are creating a lot. We just don’t get the number of pucks in that we want.”

gkrupa@detroitnews.com
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Jonathan Ericsson was little noted again Friday, as the Red Wings lost in the shootout to the Capitals, 4-3, extending their home losing streak to seven games. / David Guralnick / Detroit News