Red Wings need to play more in opposition’s end
Detroit — With a defensive corps too frequently challenged to defend and move the puck, and goaltenders playing well but often hard-pressed, the Red Wings circumstances validate the wisdom of some sage advice in hockey: Play in the other guys’ end!
It is an axiom, in part, because of some pure logic. When any team has the puck more in the opponents’ zone, it leads to more shots and goals.
Given their status on the blue line, for the Wings, offensive possession may be even more important.
Playing with the puck takes pressure off defensemen, including the essential defense of their goal and exits from the defensive zone to launch the attack.
In the current 2-5-1 stretch, and the two losses to open the season, possession in the offensive zone was at a premium for the Red Wings.
During the six-game winning streak in between, they played a lot more in the offensive zone, increasing attempted shots and goals.
Their Corsi for 60 minutes — the rate of all shots attempted minus all shots attempted against in regulation — is improved from last season. But that is likely an example of advanced statistics not telling the whole story.
Meanwhile, the Wings are 29th in the NHL in shots differential in the third period in one-goal or tie games.
With the game on the line, they are not generating enough offense.
“We looked at comparative stats,” coach Jeff Blashill said after a practice Monday that emphasized some of the competitiveness in the offensive zone that the Red Wings forwards must demonstrate in order to accomplish more possession. “We’re quite a bit lower this year, offensive zone time compared to last year.
“In the offensive zone, we’ve got to do a better job of forecheck pressure, winning those puck battles and being heavy on the puck.
“And I think we worked on that lots today.”
More pressure needed
Blashill said ebbs and flows are the reality of the season, and sometimes improving requires work on their system of deployment and sometimes on battle aggression.
The practice Monday clearly was geared to the latter, with drills like contesting pucks between the faceoff dots and the sideboards.
They also worked on faceoffs. Possession is easier to maintain when a team starts with the puck.
Creating more possession in the offensive zone is an initiative that has Blashill considering moving fourth-line center Luke Glendening to a wing on the second line. Although he made clear that while it is something he is considering conceptually, it may not become reality against the Lightning tonight.
“We’ve got to get to the other nets better,” Blashill said. “We’ve got to get more forecheck pressure and we’ve got to win more puck battles, and he does all of those things.”
Considering the move with the lighter-scoring, heavier-grinding Glendening is a mark of how desperate the Wings are for more offensive-zone pressure.
It is especially true given the injury to Thomas Vanek, who was providing some strong forechecking, puck-retrieval and possession in the offensive zone.
Vanek (hip strain) said he feels better. He could return by the end of this week.
Unit of five
While criticisms of the Red Wings defensemen are prominent, the forwards can do a better job of helping with both defensive-zone exits and gaining and maintaining possession in the offensive zone.
“Forwards have got to make sure they are available, in terms of getting the puck out,” said Gustav Nyquist, whose play off the puck has been praised by Blashill at times.
“In the offensive zone, we’ve got to come up as a five-man unit. The forwards have to do a good job of forechecking and getting stick on puck and winning puck battles.”
The problems were glaring, as most problems are in a 5-0 rout in Montreal.
Possession in the offensive zone would have been at a premium, regardless, against one of the hottest teams. But the Wings also contended with the puck-handling proficiency of goaltender Carey Price.
“As a group of five we just need to play some pucks, dumping pucks at spots where we can get pucks, and making sure our forecheck is a little better and we’re up and down as a unit of five on the ice,” Justin Abdelkader said.
“I feel like that’s very important, and a lot of times against Montreal when we dumped pucks in, it went back to Price and Price made a good pass like another defenseman back there. And they broke out easy.
“They were coming at us with speed and we felt like we were on our heels and kind of back skating the whole game. So, we couldn’t get our offensive game going.”
Goal differential lacks
The Red Wings struggled uncharacteristically all last season to maintain a positive goal differential, ending 18th in the NHL with a minus-13
Going into play Monday night, they were 18th with a minus-2.
Meanwhile, at 8-7-1, the Wings’ per game point rate would give them about 87, which would have left them six points out of the wild card in the Eastern Conference last season and tied for the second wild card in the Western Conference.
Improvement is required to assure themselves a playoff berth, a substantial improvement, eventually, if they are to last past the first round.
One place they can improve is with greater puck possession in the offensive zone, and they are talking about it and drilled on it in practice Monday.
“We’ve talked about identity, we’ve talked about being fast, we’ve talked about being relentless, we’ve talked about being competitive,” Blashill said, of some of the battle training. “You can’t win in this league unless you’re highly, highly, highly competitive.”