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Big E energizes the Wings' defense

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings

Jonathan Ericsson leads the Red Wings' defense in hits (22) in the playoffs, including this one on Chicago forward Michael Frolik in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals. (Photo by Getty Images)

DETROIT Jonathan Ericsson entered the abbreviated NHL season with a clean slate.

Obviously, the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom and the departure of Brad Stuart meant the Red Wings’ defensive landscape would be different, and those who were left, including the 6-foot-4 Ericsson, would have new roles and responsibilities to make up for the losses.

“I didn’t know what the plan was going to be and what D we had to bring in either,” Ericsson said. “I really didn’t expect anything coming into the season.”

However, the Wings had their own expectations of Big E, who was the NHL’s equivalent to the NFL’s Mr. Irrelevant when he was the last player picked in the 2002 draft. But Ericsson has been respectful of the process, working his way from third pairing last season to the top pairing this year, working alongside fellow Swede Niklas Kronwall.

Jonathan Ericsson took him a number of years to become what he's capable of being,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “Only stars step right in and grab the league. The rest of us got to work at it and get better each and every day.”

With a new defensive partner and the stability that comes with skating on the top D-unit, Ericsson has taken his game to another level, particularly since late March when he had perhaps his worst individual game of his life with a minus-5 rating in a 7-1 loss to Chicago on Easter Sunday. Since then he leads the Wings’ defense with a plus-12 in the last 22 games, and his plus-3 in the playoffs is second-best only to Justin Abdelkader and Zetterberg, who are plus-4 each.

Not known for his offensive adeptness, Ericsson made a beautiful tape-to-tape stretch pass to Johan Franzen in the third period that all but solidified the win in Game 2 over the Blackhawks, evening the Western Conference semifinal series heading into tonight’s Game 3 at Joe Louis Arena.

Along with the new role came an increase in ice-time in all situations for Ericsson. His ice-time was up by more than four minutes from last season, and he’s logging just over 22-minutes in the playoffs, which is up from 21:19 in the regular season.

“Just the responsibilities that have come with that role, I think he’s been great,” Kronwall said. “Everybody in this organization knew that he could do it, and had been knowing it for a few years, ever since he came in and played that great series, I think it was against Columbus, his first playoff. I think he’s really come into his own.”

Combined, the Ericsson/Kronwall duo has accounted for 39 hits in the playoffs against the Ducks and Blackhawks. Ericsson had nine hits in the first two games of the Chicago series, second only to Abdelkader (13). He’s also the only Detroit player to appear in every postseason game without receiving a penalty, which speaks to his discipline.

“When the stick comes up, we know that they’re going to call it,” Ericsson said. “But it’s hard sometimes to keep the stick down on the ice. You want to be as much of a pest as possible and try to hack and whack them to force them to make bad plays. But you have to find that line where you can play with your stick up or down. You know that every team right now is good on the power play and we really can’t afford to be in the box too much.”

Ericsson has been the Wings’ top penalty-killer, averaging a team-high 3:20 of shorthanded ice-time in these playoffs. He also leads the defense with 22 hits.

“I like every part of the game but I take a lot of pride in being on the penalty kill,” Ericsson said. “I want to make a difference and I want to be a guy that they count on when we’re up with a few minutes to go in the game. I want to be an important guy for the team. That’s what I value the most.”

It’s Ericsson’s consistency, especially in the playoffs, that his teammates appreciate.

“Nick is gone and boom, the next thing you know you put Big E in the top pair and look what he’s done. He’s been unbelievable,” defenseman Jakub Kindl said. “He’s progressing and getting better every year; He’s playing top minutes, he’s playing against top lines every night and he’s been solid against their forwards every night. I like the way he plays, he’s big, solid, strong, and he makes the good pass too.”

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose

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