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Wednesday Night Rivalry

Possession stats belie early success of Red Wings

Detroit off to good start despite being outshot, spending too much time in defensive zone

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Doesn't matter how you measure it: The Detroit Red Wings have not had the puck enough.

Entering their Wednesday Night Rivalry game at the Philadelphia Flyers (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV), the question is whether this is a short-term problem for a team that is 6-4-0 and on pace to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 26th straight season, or a deeper issue that will threaten the streak.

The traditional statistics: They have averaged 28.4 shots per game, 24th in the NHL, and 32.5 shots against per game, 27th in the League.

The enhanced statistics: They have taken 45.95 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts in their games, 29th in the NHL. What about the score skewing the stats? They have taken 44.63 percent when the teams have been within one goal or tied in the third period, 30th in the League.

The theory: They won't make the playoffs like this because they're relying too much on shooting and goaltending. Their combined 5-on-5 shooting and save percentages are 102.5, tied for fifth in the NHL, and eventually should regress.

Coach Jeff Blashill doesn't evaluate based on these numbers. He believes no one has found a good measure of puck possession. The Red Wings track zone time and scoring chances internally, and by their count, as subjective as it might be, they have had more scoring chances than their opponents in five of their 10 games. They have played relatively tough competition as well.

Still, it's obvious.

"We've spent more time in our [defensive] zone than we've spent in our [offensive] zone," Blashill said. "Last year, it was lots of times the opposite. We had good [offensive]-zone time. So we've got to get better at having more [offensive]-zone time."

Part of the problem is personnel. The Red Wings have paid the price for their success by not drafting in the top 10 since 1991. Time has eroded their top-end talent. They don't have a true No. 1 center in his prime. They don't have a true No. 1 or No. 2 defenseman. That slots players higher in the lineup than they should be slotted, and that's going to be hard to fix.

The Red Wings already have made at least one adjustment. The plan was to play Dylan Larkin, 20, at center in his second NHL season and shift Henrik Zetterberg, 36, to the wing, saving his legs from skating so much. But after Larkin struggled with the added responsibility in the first four games, he returned to the wing and Zetterberg went back to the middle.

Video: DET@STL: Zetterberg beats Allen to secure the win

The rest, as Blashill told his players at practice Tuesday, is urgency and attention to detail. The Red Wings need to break out of their zone better, especially against hard forechecking teams like the Flyers. They need to avoid the turnovers that have plagued them, especially those in the middle of the ice leading to rush chances against. They need to sustain more of what Blashill called "grind time" in the offensive zone.

"The one thing in today's NHL is -- you go watch any games -- there's more turnovers than there was a number of years ago because everyone's forechecking so hard, so we're going to have moments of that," Blashill said. "But we've got to have great support. We've got to get the puck out of our end if we have to. We've got to make hard plays and get it out."

Once they do that, they need to make simpler plays through the middle of the ice, more north-south, less east-west. Blashill tells his players to put pucks behind their opponents when sealed off.

"I don't mean put it behind so the other team can get it," Blashill said. "I mean put it behind so we can pressure the other team as much as possible."

In other words, don't dump it deep blindly. Chip it to space and skate. Make your opponents turn. Be relentless. Win battles. Play fast.

"We turn it over a lot the last few games," forward Tomas Tatar said. "We have to get rid of that, put the puck behind and create chaos. That's how the hockey is nowadays. You've got to dump it to get the puck in the zone, and you have to battle to create your own chances right there."

Finally, grind in the offensive zone and get back above opponents.

"If we can just get pucks behind their [defensemen] and make them come through five guys all the time, I think we're going to see a lot less shots right there," center Frans Nielsen said. "For sure, we're making mistakes defensively. But a lot of it is simply from us with the puck turning pucks over. It's something you would think shouldn't be too hard to fix, but we're still doing it a little bit. It's something [Blashill] keeps talking about all the time.

"Hopefully we can figure it out soon, because there are so many good players in this league. If you turn pucks over, they're going to make you pay."

To Nielsen, it's a matter of mindset.

"There's for sure a lot of skilled, talented players that want to make plays, but I think at times you've just got to be smart about it," he said. "We've just got to simplify our game a little more, and it's something we've got to be better at. There's so much talent in this room here, so many good players, if we can [do it], we're going to be a tough team to play against."

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