Krupa: Wings scrap their turn-the-other-cheek persona

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — After a disappointing season and the loss of an integral cog in their works, Pavel Datsyuk, a change needed to come.

What possibly could change the Red Wings more than fighting?

They are engaging in advanced disputatiousness more often now than in the recent memory, to the point of leading the NHL in fights with five, two more than any other team, entering play Tuesday.

They had eight all last season and regularly fight about the least in the NHL.

It is almost like they are paying homage to their most notable ancestor by engaging in his time-honored pugilistic practices which, as Gordie Howe said, were intended ultimately to provide him and his teammates with the time and space they needed to score and to deny it to the other guys.

Sure, there was that time Howe beat up  J.C. Tremblay in Montreal because of a confrontational, personal slight in a card game.

But we digress.

There are many reasons for fighting in the NHL. They range from gratuitous to essential.

The Wings are fighting because their personality was too placid, too unaggressive amid a disappointing season ending with five measly playoff games in April. Their docility was much like that of the high-skill team that once featured great defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and a young Datsyuk.

These days, they need some snarl.

They must inflict aggression to obtain the puck and continue possessing it, around the opponents’ net, near their own and in puck battles along the sideboards. They need to play more with that proverbial edge.

New Bruise Brothers

And some of Red Wings started the season with another proverbial: A chip on their shoulders.

When your general manager, coach, captain and the rest of your “leadership group” say that, in essence, you all underperformed grievously last season in front of some of the most knowledgeable hockey fans in North America, it can give a player pause.

When they hit play again this month, it was not with a sense of complete equanimity.

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Truth be told, some guys are still a little ticked off at how it all went down last season.

And then, their coach talked to them in camp about engaging in battle. Not just with sticks on pucks and bodies pressing and banging opponents to assert the initiative, although that is all a prime priority, certainly.

Jeff Blashill encouraged them to battle in extremis, to “stick up for each other.”

His predecessor, Mike Babcock, once said after a game featuring a both his more talented roster and a fight, “Sometimes I wonder what we’re doing.”

No longer.

Blashill said he encouraged them to fight.

“We’re the new Bruise Brothers, right? We lead the league in majors. I like it,” he said after the first game at Joe Louis Arena — the first Red Wings' victory — after Jonathan Ericsson squared off against the stolid Dion Phaneuf of the Senators.

Blashill’s facial expression registered happiness with a to-do item checked on his list.

“One thing we talked about is making sure we look after each other and stick up for each other,” he said. “You have to have the feeling amongst your group that you’re going to look out for each other.”

Finding identity

Before the season started, Blashill also commented on the sudden willingness to fight.

“We’ve tried to talk about identity more than systems in camp, with everything,” he said. “We really want to have our own identity more than anything else. Systems are systems, but we want to make sure we have an identity of how we play.

“It will be a little bit different. Pavel was a methodical hockey player. He wanted to control the play.

“I think we’re going to have to be a team that’s fast, and fast in transitions, and those kinds of things. So, our identity will change.”

The next game, Dylan Larkin fought Predators defenseman Yannick Weber, landing at least two rights, yanking Weber to the ice and standing above him with his right arm cocked again before yielding to “the code” and not tossing another punch at a defenseless opponent.

It was magnificent.

“Sticking up for each other,” a matter-of-fact Larkin said of the fifth Wings fighting major. “I don’t think we had five all year last year. But it’s fun, we’re battling and, you know, you can’t question our compete level and how bad we want to win.”

Sometimes in hockey, a fight is not about the fight. It is about the long campaign.

For the Wings, it helped turn the tide after a stumbling start.

Do not expect them to continue to lead the NHL for long. Given the speed and skill with which they desire to play, that much fighting would be too much distraction.

But there are reasons for it and, right now, the Wings are fighting the good fight.