Detroit — The Red Wings play one of the top offensive teams in the NHL again Thursday, facing Mike Babcock’s Maple Leafs in Toronto 48 hours after Steve Yzerman’s Lightning.
“I thought we gave too much space, last night, which is something we worked on in practice,” Jeff Blashill said of the 6-5 overtime loss to Tampa Bay.
“I just thought there was too much ice out there for them to get going, once they got going a little bit.”
That it took a while for the Lightning to ignite is to the Wings credit, and perhaps something they can draw on, against the Maple Leafs, in ScotiaBank Arena.
The Wings built a 2-0 lead against Tampa Bay in the first period, outshooting them, 12-5.
And, with Frans Nielsen and Gustav Nyquist both ending cold goal-scoring stretches, despite an 18-7 shot on goal deficit in the second, the Wings led 4-3.
They were defending well, against a powerful offensive team.
But, they could not make it stick.
Nicklas Kronwall and some other Wings said they thought the team stopped skating.
But it is also true that a stubborn bugaboo of theirs created problems.
“I didn’t think we were good enough out of our end,” Blashill said of the defensive zone coverage, puck possession and transition to offense difficulties that have plagued the Red Wings in recent seasons.
They help create offense for opponents by spending far too much time in their own end.
“I thought we hurt ourselves the last couple games, and this is just the reality of the league, by the number of times we didn’t get the puck out of our end,” Blashill said.
“We’ve got to make sure that when we’re going to make hard plays, we’ve got to make them hard.
“We’ve got to get it out,” he said.
“And, when we turn one puck over, we can’t turn two pucks over.
“Everybody turns the puck over, because everyone pressures. We’ve got to make sure that it doesn’t become prolonged d-zone.”
The Maple Leafs approach is a bit more directly up ice than the Lightning, Blashill said.
“Tampa tends to buy a little more space and make some underneath plays. Toronto has a heck of a north game,” he said, referring to the Maple Leafs' sling-shot ability to advance the puck up ice.
Establishing an aggressive fore-check and closing gaps to opponents through center ice are two methods of slowing them down.
“The biggest thing, I think, is that we’ve got to do a good job of pressuring them,” Blashill said. “If you don’t pressure, you give too much time up.
“So, we’ve got to pressure while making sure we don’t get on the wrong side of people. That’s a tricky thing, sometimes. But we’ve got to be really good at it, tomorrow.
“We’ve got to defend them as much as we can.”
Another way of defending is playing offense in the opponents’ zone, which the Wings were able to do at a reasonable rate during the first period against the Lightning.
But that requires getting the puck out of their own zone and launching the transition.
“I think they’re playing some really good hockey,” Andreas Athanasiou said of the Leafs.
“It’s going to be something we’re going to have to match. Limit their time and space and not give those offensive players their time with the puck.”
Blashill said matching up with a team with as much talent as the Maple Leafs at home, depends a lot on what Babcock intends to do with his lines against the Red Wings, with all of the offensive talent Babcock can deploy.
“We’ll wait and see what happens,” Blashill said.
“They’ve got a lot of dangerous guys out there, for sure,” said Nyquist, who scored his fifth and sixth goals of the season in the game against the Lightning. Nyquist leads the Wings in assists with 17.
“You’ve got to watch out for those guys. We’ve got to gap-up and give them no space. But those guys are good, even in tight spaces.”
Resisting any urge to get involved in a goal-swapping track meet with the Maple Leafs is important, said the 29-year-old forward, who is in the last year of his contract and has filled some of the playmaking deficit caused by Henrik Zetterberg’s back.
“I don’t think this is a team you want to trade chance for chance, by any means,” Nyquist said. “You want to stay on top of your guy and give him no space to manage the puck. That’s how you beat a team like this. Not by taking chances.”
Nyquist also said the Wings must do a good job addressing a priority for winning, with which they have had some trouble so far this season: Penalties.
“Again, staying out of the box is key,” he said. “They have a really dangerous power play. So, play like we did in the first against Tampa Bay and see how we do.”
Red Wings at Maple Leafs
Face-off: 7 Thursday, ScotiaBank Arena, Toronto
Outlook: William Nylander returns to a stacked, powerful lineup for the Maple Leafs after extended contract negotiations. The Leafs (20-8) have reached 20 wins quicker than any season since 1934-35. … The Wings will be without Tyler Bertuzzi, Trevor Daley, Danny DeKeyser and Anthony Mantha.