DETROIT – Jonathan Ericsson and his defensive partner, Niklas Kronwall, are typically saddled with the responsibility of playing against some of the league’s best forward lines every night.
The NHL is a grind – even for a big man like Ericsson – and the 6-foot-4 defenseman understands he can’t win every battle in the corners every night, but there are some things he says he can do to management his game a bit better.
“There are so many small things that make a lot of difference that can give a little boost in confidence,” Ericsson said. “It can make a big difference. … Maybe I haven’t contributed on the offense before – it’s not like I’m contributing every game or so – but the points have been there. I’ve been in on more goals, but I think it’s more coincidence.”
A solid defender for the Wings, Ericsson has never been known for his offensive prowess, though he is having his best season that way. He’s has never been much of a point producer, but he’s just two points away from tying his career high (15).
According to some of his teammates, it’s not a mere chance that the 30-year-old is contributing to the score sheet.
“I thought just watching his game he’s shooting the puck a lot,” forward Tomas Tatar said. “Johnny has a rocket. He’s a really smart player. He knows when to shoot. He can shoot for rebound, tip and I think he’s doing a really good job defensively. He’s a plus and doing a really, really good job on the PK too.”
But too often this season Ericsson’s game has been up and down. Still, the Swedish blue liner is driven to compete by the challenges of playing against some of the best players in the league every game.
So nearly five weeks ago, Ericsson made a pledge. He was going to be more consistent on both ends of the ice, and so far, it’s worked out pretty good for him.
Since Jan. 10, Ericsson has played big offensively as well as defensively, producing three goals – which is one shy of tying his single-season career high set in 2009-10 – and three assists with a plus-7 rating in 11 games. That’s up considerably from the first 41 games this season when he was held to seven assists and a minus-3 rating.
While he agrees that his play has been steady recently, Ericsson prefers to credit much of his improved consistency to the team’s winning ways.
“It’s been more consistent, I think the whole team has been more consistent,” Ericsson said. “We’re not letting up too many chances, odd-man rushes. I think the system is tighter now than it was. We played well before, but and I think we played fast. But now I think the structure has been key to why we’ve won a lot of games, like in Colorado. I think the whole team is so much more consistent now.”
Besides his fighting major last week in Colorado, coach Mike Babcock is glad to see more energy and fury out of his big defenseman lately.
“Yeah, especially this last little bit,” Babcock said. “Big E normally plays real well in the games that on the schedule look like big games to you and then sometimes not quite the same in the rest and so intensity is always something that we need him to bring to the table and he has the dimension of size and skating and can pass the puck so we need him to be on the top of his game for us to be the best we can be.”
A contributing factor on the blue line as well as on the penalty kill, Ericsson’s input isn’t lost on his partner.
“I think he looks really confident out there,” Kronwall said. “He’s a big presence for us. He’s been playing well, not just defensively, but making plays, staying calm with the puck. He’s doing a lot of good things. He’s huge for us on the PK.”
It also helps that Ericsson’s is getting more shots through from the point on a regular basis.
“Yeah, anytime he gets the puck he wants to make sure it gets to the net,” Kronwall said, “and that’s something that we’ve worked on and he’s really taken advantage of that.”
Last season, Ericsson missed 34 games with three different injuries – a separated shoulder, broken ribs, and a broken finger, which required season-ending surgery last March.
He experienced a hip flexor injury at training camp, but he played in the Wings’ exhibition finale and was ready to jump into the opening night lineup. Before the start of the season, doctors told Ericsson that his left middle finger may never regain full range of motion, which could help explain his slow start.
“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “I was still getting more and more used to it. But I think you have to adapt to what you can do and what you cannot do and that gets easier with time. In the back of your head you’re having to think about things and if you do it enough times you’re just going to do it naturally instead of thinking about it.”