Wings trending in right direction before 2-game upswing

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Red Wings defenseman Nick Jensen takes a shot in the first period.

Detroit — Not just the last two games, both of which were victories.

But coach Jeff Blashill has seen a gradual improvement in the Red Wings’ play for some time, all of which contributed to the impressive wins over Pittsburgh and Montreal.

The record hasn’t always shown it — the Red Wings were only 3-5-2 in a stretch of 10 games (nine of which were on the road) — preceding the two-game win streak.

But, on the ice, Blashill sees things the Red Wings have improved upon, which will help going forward.

“It’s more than the last two (games), over the last number of games we’ve gotten better as a hockey team, over the last month,” Blashill said. “Closer support movement up the ice, which has led to better forecheck, which led to more offensive zone time.

“A way better shot first mentality.”

Blashill did not like the scoring opportunities allowed in recent days and weeks leading to the Montreal game.

But Monday, the Red Wings completely throttled the Canadiens, limiting them to 18 shots and precious few prime scoring chances.

“(It was) something we wanted to straighten up and Montreal was a real tight game, neither team had a whole bunch (of opportunities),” Blashill said.

Winning at home was also a confidence boost.

Consecutive wins have rekindled Wings' playoff hopes

The Red Wings have struggled all season at Joe Louis Arena, but closed to within one game of .500 on home ice (9-10-3) with the victories over Pittsburgh and Montreal.

“We have to do a good job of taking care of our home ice,” forward Justin Abdelkader said. “We’ve struggled the first half of the season, for whatever reason. We just have to make sure to come out with the right energy and compete level and keep the crowd in it.

“It definitely feels good. It’s a better feeling when you win, especially consecutive games. We’re feeling more confident definitely and playing better on home ice.

“As a unit of 20, we’re playing better.”

Young defense maturing

Young defensemen Xavier Ouellet and Nick Jensen have been thrust into a larger roles with Niklas Kronwall (groin) and Brendan Smith (knee) out, but neither have flinched.

“Part of it is they do have a good amount of experience they’ve had to spend in the American League,” said Blashill, noting their time in Grand Rapids.

Jensen also played three years of college hockey at St. Cloud (Minnesota) State, while Ouellet spent three seasons in Grand Rapids after turning pro.

Blashill likes the way both defensemen have tied up opponents.

“They’ve stalled the play in our end, meaning they’ve created stall opportunities in the defensive zone, so we can be real fast in the D-zone and get the puck out,” Blashill said. “That’s a real important part of defensive zone (coverage) and they’ve done a good job of it.”

Injury update

Darren Helm (dislocated shoulder) and Kronwall (groin) both participated in Wednesday’s morning skate.

Helm appears to be the closest to returning, possibly as early as this weekend.

Helm injured his shoulder against Tampa Bay Nov. 15, but has been skating for the last several weeks.

“Helmer is the closest, probably,” said Blashill of a possible return.

Blashill said Smith could have joined the team for the morning skate but was held back.

Goaltender Jimmy Howard (sprained knee) has begun skating lightly on his own, but a return is still weeks away.