What’s behind dual success of the Detroit Red Wings’ special teams?
The Red Wings are able to rely on both of their special teams, and that’s a huge boost. Filmed Nov. 8, 2018 in Detroit. Helene St. James, Detroit Free Press
The aggressiveness at times can wear on the coaching staff, but the overriding feeling is one of confidence.
The Detroit Red Wings have two functional special teams, their power play and penalty kill both ensconced in the top 10 in the NHL. That’s gratifying, especially after both finished in the bottom third last season, and it’s come even as a rash of injuries have impacted both units.
“The power play has been scoring big goals for us,” Dylan Larkin said Thursday. “We’re simplifying it. We’re using different looks. Guys have been out of the lineup, key guys on our power play and penalty kill, and we’ve had great depth with guys coming in and scoring big goals. Penalty kill, we’re getting up ice and we’re creating pressure, but when we come back, we’re tight and we’re bumping pucks to each other then clearing it.
“We continue that, we are going to just help ourselves and give ourselves more chances to win.”
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The Wings are looking to win for what would be the fourth time in five games when they host the New York Rangers, Friday at Little Caesars Arena. Entering Thursday’s games, the Wings had the league’s ninth best power play (26.1 percent) and 10th best penalty kill (82.1 percent. The PK was instrumental in Tuesday’s rally over the Vancouver Canucks, delivering a big kill after the Wings unsuccessfully challenged a goal.
“It’s a such a big momentum builder,” Mike Green said. “Guys have been so committed to blocking shots and doing the right things that has led us to kill these penalties at key moments of a game, and we’ve been able to create some momentum and come back. We’ve been elevated from that.”
Their power play has scored in each of the past three victories. It was Larkin who threw the puck to the slot Tuesday, though he didn’t get an assist on Justin Abdelkader’s power-play goal because the puck hit a Canucks player before Abdelkader scored. Larkin has three power-play points overall. Rookie Dennis Cholowski leads the team with six power-play points, and rookie Michael Rasmussen is tied for most power-play goals (two) with veteran Thomas Vanek. The power play success has come even as power-play regulars such as Vanek, Andreas Athanasiou and Frans Nielsen have been injured over the past week.
The Wings had a good power play to start last season — it ranked sixth in the league at 22.6 percent on Dec. 22. From Dec. 23 to the end of the season, it was last in the league at 13.3 percent, and finished 24th at 17.5 percent overall.
There’s wariness of making sure that doesn’t happen again.
“It’s about consistency,” Green said. “You can start off great but it’s a long season and you have to make sure that you’re being consistent on a regular basis.
“It’s imperative that you focus on these special teams and make sure that we’re doing the right things to keep that consistency.”
Coach Jeff Blashill said the fact both special teams can be relied on to build momentum can’t be overstated.
“When you can have confidence on a special-teams unit, it breeds,” he said. “It’s a big thing.”
While the penalty kill is the responsibility of defense coach Doug Houda, one of the reasons Dan Bylsma was hired as an assistant this past June was to run the power play.
“Both assistants have had good plans from day one,” Blashill said. “They’ve done a good job of making adjustments when needed. On the power play, we’ve had some additions that have helped — certainly Cholowski, and Rasmussen with the net presence. Guys have done a good job executing as well.”
Execution has boosted a penalty kill that finished last season ranked 23rd. The four skaters are breaking up plays and, when opportunity knocks, driving the puck up the ice and creating a scoring chance while eating valuable seconds.
“We’ve done a decent a job of that, taking opportunities when we have them and not forcing them when we don’t,” Darren Helm said. “I think we’ve done a pretty good of recognizing when we can attack and when we can’t. We’ve gotten a couple big goals off of it. Hopefully we can stay the course and keep the mindset of not being too aggressive but going when we can.”
Helm, Glendening, Nielsen, Larkin (who has two shorthanded goals) all are comfortable carrying the puck into the offensive zone shorthanded. Blashill joked that’s sometimes stressful for Houda.
“If Doug had hair, he’d have less at times the way our guys want to try to take off and score,” Blashill said. “Sometimes it’s to his chagrin.
“But the reality is, when you can score shorthanded you put the other team on their heels, or if you get chances shorthanded, you put the other team on their heels.”
Contact Helene St. James: email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames.