Red Wings trying to restore defensive structure returning from break

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — Judging from Tuesday's NHL scores, teams might still be on holiday break when playing defense.

Or trying to play defense.

Tuesday's three games resulted in 32 goals (not counting a shootout winner in San Jose), with plenty of scoring opportunities, some wide-open play and teams remembering how to play defense.

Detroit center Sam Gagner said defense might not be on front of everyone's mind.

And it wasn't surprising.

Much like at the beginning of a regular season, teams are establishing — or in this case, re-establishing — their defensive principles. It might take time to get back to the type of defense most teams were playing.

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That's why coach Jeff Blashill has been preaching about the defensive aspect this week, as the Wings return from their holiday (and COVID-19 induced) break.

"When you're been off a long time, your defensive habits aren't as good," Blashill said. "It's just when you don't practice much, your defensive habits aren't as good.

"And now, you have the whole league whose defensive habits aren't quite there. When that happens, you're seeing the higher scores."

There were some mitigating circumstances Tuesday. Montreal had nine regulars out of its lineup and brought up many young players from the minor leagues to face two-time defending champion Tampa Bay.  The Lightning was missing key players, including goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, in what was a 5-4 Tampa overtime win.

Arizona and San Jose were missing key pieces and battled to a 7-7 tie into the shootout, while Vegas and Los Angeles also had a high-scoring game (6-3 Vegas victory).

Not playing a game for at whole week or more, along with no practice, and no video work let the lack of attention defensively shine through.

"At the beginning of the year, scores are higher than at the end of the year because defensive habits, structure, all that stuff, hasn't become ingrained," Blashill said. "By the end of the year, it's way harder to create offense. It's gets way real, and gets like playoff hockey."

Forward Sam Gagner, who Tuesday came off the protocol list and returned to practice, said players can sometimes be focusing on things other than defense.

"Your attention to detail might be a little bit off, you're focused on your conditioning level and getting your timing back and those intricacies of the game take a little time to get back," Gagner said. "For us, we're going to have an opportunity to practice a couple of times as a team and do some special teams (practice) and team play, and hopefully we can come back ready to go."

New guidelines

The NHL Tuesday cut its COVID-19 isolation time to five days under certain conditions where allowed by local jurisdiction.

The NHL joined the NBA and NFL, who both readjusted their time to five days, after the CDC made that recommendation earlier in the week.

Still, the change affects only the 25 U.S.-based teams. The seven Canadian-based teams are under stricter regulations in Canada.

For a team like the Wings, who have been ravaged by the virus, it was welcome news.

"It's certainly beneficial to those individuals that would be able to get out (of protocol) earlier, there's zero doubt about that," Blashill said. "You just won't miss as many (games), just like the guys who got it (the virus) during this break. We felt pretty fortunate when Bert (Tyler Bertuzzi) went into protocol because he only missed five games because the schedule had slowed down a bit.

"Some guys may not miss any games. Moving forward, there's the opportunity to miss less games, so it's advantageous to those players and it's equal across the league."

Ice chips

Gagner and forward Joe Veleno came off the protocol list Wednesday, and several more are likely to become eligible to play Thursday, which means forward Lucas Raymond and defense Nick Leddy would be the two regulars unlikely to be ready to play Friday against Washington.

In all, the Wings appear to be getting healthier and escaping the worst of the situation.

"You cross your fingers knowing just the way this has gone, you think you're out of the woods and someone tests positive," Blashill said. "But it seems to have, in the last couple of days, subsided a little bit. You don't know, it's almost an hour by hour kind of approach. You have to be ready to adjust as needed and confront the obstacles."

... The Wings reversed course from planning a full scale practice Wednesday to an optional skate, what with players still coming off the protocol list and different players at various stages of conditioning.

"We're in a real weird spot where there are guys who haven't skated at all, and certain guys who've skated (three straight days)," said Blashill, adding there are practices and games scheduled through Monday. "It's more about looking forward than just today."

Twitter: @tkulfan