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Krupa: ‘Smart’ Wings learning how to lock down foes

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Alexey Marchenko, Danny DeKeyser and Jimmy Howard hold the Flyers in check Wednesday night.

Detroit – If they play the Bruins Thursday night like they played beating the Flyers 3-0 Wednesday, the Red Wings’ 25th consecutive playoff berth is all but assured.

Mounting perhaps their best defensive effort of the season as a team Wednesday, the Wings also limited turnovers to deny the Flyers scoring opportunities.

They also got behind the Flyers defense and descended on goalie Steve Mason, who had a good game. But twice Mason found himself too alone, with Darren Helm and Andreas Athanasiou attacking at close quarters and scoring.

Attaining those three advantages against the Bruins would go a long way toward achieving the same result, and a victory will lock down third place in the Atlantic Division.

“If we continue to play as a five-man unit as one out there in all three zones, we’re a very competitive and tough team to play against,” the winning goalie Jimmy Howard said.

Entering play today, the Red Wings have 93 points and the Bruins and Flyers 91. Philadelphia has a game in hand.

If the Wings beat Boston in regulation or overtime, they clinch the third slot in the division.

Consistency has been elusive for the Wings, this season. But the last three games, wins against Wild, Maple Leafs and Flyers, provide ample evidence they can string together periods in which their execution in the critical areas of team defense, puck possession and securing scoring position close to the opponent’s goal is resolutely effective.

“I thought we played real smart,” Jeff Blashill said in the dressing room, after the Red Wings shutout the Flyers. “I didn’t think we gave up lots of chances. I thought we did a real good job with that.”

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Jimmy Howard saw around and through the Flyers’ big bodies, and sight and recognition helped deliver the big win. But Howard did a lot less alone than in many games both he and Petr Mrazek have won this season, when they were too often called on to erase mistakes in front of them.

The Wings’ giveaways were listed as five in the first period. But they got control of the tendency in the second and third and added only three more the rest of the game.

They also deployed a disciplined structure defensively, with the tandems of defensemen consistently coordinated and forwards providing strong support, especially with their positional play.

Howard recorded the shutout, but he credited the troops.

“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the guys in front of me,” Howard said. “They were awesome.

“You can go right down through the list of every single one of our D-men. You know, we made quick simple plays out of attacks in our zone and that’s what we’re going to have to do to be successful on the road.”

Defensemen credited the forwards, too. Some said they thought positioning, including the spacing between the defensemen and the forwards, and the support the forwards were able to offer as a result, was arguably better against the Flyers than it has been all season.

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Blashill sought more defense during the past two weeks with lineup changes, much to the chagrin of some fans who yearn for more offensive punch. But team defense has improved.

The three consecutive wins have been devoid of opponents’ scoring blitzes that yielded six goals to the Lightning, seven to the Penguins and four, twice, to the Canadiens, since March 22.

They have battened down.

Personnel and combinations are part of it, but execution is a lot of it.

“I thought today was probably our most complete game,” said Luke Glendening, whose efforts on the power play Wednesday were outstanding, and whose body-checking stated clearly to the physical Flyers early on that the Wings would be the aggressors.

“In the first five minutes, they came out run-and-gun, and I thought we handled that really well and kind of protected each other.”

Asked if the game could be representative of things to come, Glendening offered hope but said accomplishment comes with completing tasks.

“Yeah, maybe, but I don’t know,” he said. “You just take it one game at a time. But obviously, it’s a big win for us and we have a huge game tomorrow.”

Blashill was clear about what he believes has changed to make the Red Wings suddenly steady late in the campaign.

“I think we’ve been better defensively,” he said. “I think it goes hand-in-hand: When you are better defensively it’s easier to make saves, when you make saves it gives you confidence defensively.

“This was a good win, and let’s focus on trying to win a hockey game tomorrow.”

Henrik Zetterberg, like the captain he is, identified the opportunity and the challenge.

“If we play like we did tonight, we’ll have a chance,” Zetterberg said of the game against the Bruins. “It’s short turnaround for us.”

The quick turnaround makes it more difficult, especially with the Bruins having the luxury of resting Wednesday. And the Red Wings will not have the fans in Joe Louis Arena, who lifted them against the Flyers.

But it is all the more reason to play as one unit in all three zones, as Howard suggested, and to execute well the few basic tasks that are proving keys to their sudden winning consistency.