Way back for Wings? First, get up the ice

by | May 17, 2013 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

It is never good, in the sports world, to be worried about your “own end,” not in horse racing, not in sumo wrestling and certainly not in hockey.

But the Red Wings’ own end is where trouble is brewing, and has been brewing, and it needs to be fixed if they want to keep going in this year’s playoffs.

I thought the series against Anaheim had way too many turnovers and sloppy plays close to the Red Wings’ net. But Game 1 against Chicago on Wednesday night felt as if the building had been constructed on a slant, and the Wings were always defending the lower half.

Far too many times, passes weren’t cleared, pucks were coughed up, and there seemed to be little Detroit coordination in how to move out of its own zone, except to charge forward and hope the Blackhawks didn’t take it away. It was like watching play after play on your own 10-yard line, and then fumbling. Or, put another way, the 2008 Lions.

Brendan Smith, the Wings’ young defenseman, had another tough night in Game 1. His inability to clear the puck during Chicago’s first power play helped lead to a 1-0 deficit. After that, you basically held your breath whenever he touched it in the Wings’ end.

You can’t come down too hard on a 24 year-old. But you want to tell him and a few other Wings, “Hey, there’s many ways to get a puck out besides trying to keep it on your stick. Flick it! Use the boards!”

Or as coach Mike Babcock said a few weeks ago, think about what Nick Lidstrom would do.

“He didn’t force anything,” Babcock told the media of his now-retired superstar. “…When you force things, you generate offense for (the opposition).”

Missing those talented veterans

The young Wings may be forcing things. And that does generate offense for the opponent. But it’s not just the newbies. Jonathan Ericsson has been with the Wings for years, but still had his struggles in Game 1. He admitted as much after the game to the media:

“I think it took way too long for us to get out of our own zone and when we get out we don’t have any energy to attack…. We have to do a much better job in the D-zone and the D’s got to do a better job of getting the pucks up and the forwards have to do a better job in being open.”

Why are the Wings enduring this back end problem? It’s a combination of things, most notably the absence of Lidstrom and veteran defensemen Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart. These were guys who knew the art of moving the puck out of the zone, or digging at it until a teammate did.

For years we took for granted how easily Lidstrom could strip a guy coming into the Detroit end, then convert that strip into the perfect ricochet pass up ice that set the Wings in motion in the preferred direction.

Without that magic, the puck stays in the Detroit end longer, and opponents have time to swarm.

Keeping it simple

“Unfortunately, all you guys in Detroit aren’t used to it,” ESPN’s Barry Melrose told me last week. “You’re used to a solid group of defensemen led by Lidstrom…. This is sort of new territory for you, young defensemen having to play all these minutes.

“You’re seeing your future. But unfortunately, it’s not as good as your past.”

Then again, it’s not supposed to be. All teams go through transitions. Babcock did manage to whip the Wings’ porous defense early in the season into very good status by the year’s end in goals-against. But some of that is Jimmy Howard. And it doesn’t address the extra work the Wings have to do just to get things started once they get the puck.

Honestly, at times, it’s like watching a man try to pass a kidney stone.

The Blackhawks are really good. And you simply won’t beat them if they have nearly three times as many takeaways (11-4) and twice as many shots (42-21) – the way they did in Game 1. One of the ways you limit both?

Get out of your own end.

The day off should help. So should this simple reminder. Don’t be cute. Don’t try to do too much. And don’t panic.

Or, as they say in horse racing, let the other guy worry about your own end, not you.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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