Lineup changes help provide spark to Red Wings offense

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — The lineup changed before the game and the Red Wings beat the Islanders 5-1, in a rare display of offensive might and explosiveness.

They scored five four times previously this season. Only once, on Dec. 3 against the Coyotes, did it result in a four-goal margin of victory.

The Wings adjusted their forces, looking for some goals. Summoning the swift Andreas Athanasiou from Grand Rapids also allowed coach Jeff Blashill to reunite Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

Those changes are likely to remain constant — at least as constant as arrangements can be in a league in which designed parity results in the slenderest margin of error.

After two losses to division rivals straight out of the All Star break and dropping to a wild card playoff position, one point above elimination, some fans pined for major lineup changes, perhaps the proverbial major trade.

But Blashill said the effort against the Panthers Thursday produced lots of scoring chances and too few goals. Meanwhile, the Red Wings yielded a season-high six after having allowed five only once (Penguins, New Year’s Eve).

The needs the coach perceived were somewhat slighter. And he said he did not want to diminish the defensive performance as the cost of more offense.

Call it the two percent solution.

“The challenge for us would be, we want to get — I would say, in Ken Holland’s words — just two percent better,” Blashill said, quoting the general manager before the Islanders game.

“So, we’re making some decisions to try to wrestle a little bit more goals. We’ve got to make sure that we don’t make it two percent worse when we make those decisions.

“So, we’re going to have to watch it. We’re going to have to continue to play real good defensively.”

Then he offered a prescription:

“I’d say one thing we can still do better is hit the net. We’ve got to make goalies make saves.”

They played that way Saturday, and the changes affecting Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Athanasiou are likely to stick — perhaps for a significant amount of time.

Together again

For years, Mike Babcock played Datsyuk and Zetterberg apart when he thought they would help two lines. He put them together when he thought it would help them.

Blashill’s conceptualization seems little different. And, right now, he is intent on helping them.

The Wings long-time aces are making plays. Zetterberg leads with 25 assists. Datsyuk’s two assists against the Islanders brought him to 20.

But they have combined for only 15 goals in 89 games played — Zetterberg with nine in 52 and Datsyuk with six in 37. Neither is on a pace for 20.

“The one thing with those two guys, when they’re apart, they give us a real good 1-2 punch up the middle,” Blashill said. “But they do enjoy playing together. Their skill sets match really well. They’re both give-and-go type of players.

“They like to play a certain style, probably different from the rest of our team, so putting them together allows them to do that.”

I think Pavel and Hank have both been playing real well. Pavel would like to produce more points.”

After the win, Blashill made clear that 40 and 13 are likely to be seen together on the ice a lot in the remaining four games of the home stand, and perhaps beyond.

“I thought they did a good job,” he said. “What did we call them `Eurotwins?’ I thought there were moments when we saw that, when they played off each other real well.

“I told them this isn’t going to be a short-term thing. And I don’t know what long term means, but we’ve got a good home stand, here. Let’s see if they can feed off each other, that way.”

And, as Blashill said, both veterans, whose careers are hallmarks of playing a 200-foot game, were matched against the Islanders’ best line, led by the potent offensive force of John Tavares (18-19-37). So their offensive possibilities were limited by their defensive responsibilities.

Speed merchant

The pairing of Datsyuk and Zetterberg is made possible, in part, by the elevation of the 21-year-old Athanasiou.

As teams prepare to play the Red Wings, they unanimously say -- as did the Islanders’ Coach Jack Capuano before the game -- they must account for speed and disciplined structure.

Athanasiou makes them quicker. The hope is that the resulting moves throughout the lineup, including on the penalty kill, do not make the Wings any weaker, especially defensively.

“We think we’re a fairly fast team,” Blashill said. “With him, you add another big speed element.

“ We wanted to add a little bit more of that identity to the hockey team.

“Double-A gives us a ton of speed. He’s got world class speed. He’s right up there with Larkin and Helm; as fast as anybody, I’ll bet, in the league.”

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

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Panthers at Red Wings

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Notes : Red Wings yielded a season-high six goals against the surprisingly strong Panthers Thursday, before bouncing back with a big offensive effort and better team defense Saturday against the Islanders… In his 21st season, Jaromir Jagr tallied a goal and two assists against the Wings, and his 37 points (16-21) place him four points behind Gordie Howe and six behind Mark Messier for most points by a player age 43 or older.