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Notes: Team defense key to Red Wings season

Athanasiou skates, still a game-time decision

by Arthur J. Regner @ArthurJRegner / DetroitRedWings.com

DETROIT -- As the Red Wings continue to prepare for the opening of the 2019-20 campaign against the Predators Saturday night in Nashville, one thing is abundantly clear.

If Detroit hopes to be in the thick of the playoff hunt this season, it must improve offensively and defensively from last year's lackluster numbers.

The Wings' 2.73 goals per game last season ranked 21st in the NHL while their goals against of 3.32 was 27th overall.

Special teams were also a disappointment with Detroit's power play clicking at a success rate of 18.1%, which was 19th overall, and its penalty kill of 77.1% checked in at 28th in the NHL.

It's apparent the Wings need to improve in every aspect of their game, but they all agree if they can reduce their goals against, they give themselves a legitimate shot at being competitive.

"It's the easiest way to cut down, it's really hard to magically get 70 more goals. I don't think there's a team in the world that can't get better defensively, so that's the easiest way to do it (improve)," coach Jeff Blashill said after the Wings practiced Friday afternoon at the Belfor Training Center. "If I thought the easier way was offense, we'd do it that way. Am I happy with the progression? I think our guys understand. I think one of the biggest parts of it is just the mindset of understanding of that's how you're going to win.

"So I think our guys have an understanding of that. But I'll tell you tomorrow. I'll tell you Sunday. We still have to go out and play great. We got to play great defensively. We got to minimize the other team's chances while still trying to create as much as we can. I think ultimately when you play really good defense you probably have the puck way more. The best way to play defense is have the puck and play in the other team's end. We're going to have to do that for sure."

Defensive success hinges on the Wings playing defense as a five-man unit, which can be difficult in a game as fast as today's NHL, but it is essential.

"We've had meetings and Blash (Jeff Blashill) has discussed stuff with us where we know we have to cut our goals against, he's put it up on the board before, he's shown us where we were at last year (in goals against) and how we have to improve, but it's easier said than done," Danny DeKeyser said. "It's something you just have to work on as a team, it's just not one guy. It takes a group of players to play good team defense, you have to have layers of support -- if one guy gets beat it shouldn't end up as a scoring chance. You should have layers where you're reading off guys; if he does get beat, you help. There's other things too, man-on-man type of stuff."

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: "Hopefully you'll get see a little more 'mad' #RedWings. That want to get out there and prove something. And we have to be."🗣: Frans Nielsen pic.twitter.com/EDxQhQilnH

There does seem to be a resolve with the Red Wings this year and they're determined to prove the naysayers wrong, the ones who believe Detroit is eons away from being a legitimate playoff team.

"I thought everyone came into camp with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. No one likes being done in early April and really done way before that," said alternate captain Luke Glendening. "I think this year, it's a day by day league and we have to show up against Nashville on Saturday. That's where it starts. We definitely . . . we want to be better."

Veteran center Frans Nielsen believes the Red Wings have tuned out their critics, but he does want to see a Detroit team with more rage in their game.

"Guys are not even listening to the outside," Nielsen said. "I think we're trying to worry about ourselves. But at the same time, you see it in guys' eyes when we're talking in here that guys are not happy about what's been going on here lately. "Hopefully you get to see a little more mad Red Wings that want to get out there and prove something, and we have to be. I think we have a good team but not good enough to skill our way through the league."

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: Coach Blashill sounds off before the club heads to Nashville as we begin the 2019-20 campaign. #RedWings #LGRW pic.twitter.com/w6w1FH4Dy5

ATHANASIOU PRACTICES, STILL QUESTIONABLE: After not partaking in Thursday's practice, forward Andreas Athanasiou was back on the ice Friday with his teammates.

Though it's an encouraging sign to see Greece Lightning taking part in drills, it's still a question mark if he'll dress for Saturday's game against the Predators.

"He'll still be a game-time decision," Blashill said. "We'll see how he feels tomorrow and if he's ready to go. So game-time decision for Doubles, Larks (Dylan Larkin) is ready to go, everybody else seems to be healthy with the exception of Jonathan Ericsson."

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: .@AndreasA86 back practicing with the boys. #LGRW pic.twitter.com/YLTjSX8ZZR

Athanasiou is a core player for the Wings and a player they're counting to beef up the secondary scoring, which is sorely lacking in Detroit's game.

After Detroit's top line of Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and Tyler Bertuzzi, the Wings need to find a couple of line combinations that can punch up the Wings goal total.

Blashill has experimented with several combinations in practice with Athanasiou playing both the wing and center.

On Friday Athanasiou was centering a line between Glendening and Taro Hirose, Nielsen was centering Valtteri Filppula and Adam Erne.

"If you go back to the end of last year, Hirose, Double-A and Glendening were a good line. I don't know if I'd call one a center over the other," Blashill said. "We made a big deal of Double-A playing center but the reality is sometimes Glenny is the center and sometimes Doubles is the center. It was a good line and I want to see that line again, so it's definitely something I'll consider and we'll see who's healthy.

"You can't live on one line scoring. Certainly with Doubles in the lineup... the thing that helps with Doubles in the lineup is it makes Taro more dangerous. Taro is not a self-creator, he's a guy that plays off really good offensive players.

"Outside of Larkin, Mantha and Bertuzzi, obviously, the next most-talented player is AA without a doubt. I think if we can get them playing together, it helps create more synergy in that group in offense. There's other ways to score, it doesn't always have to be just through skill. The bottom half of the lineup is going to have to score by getting pucks to the net, being hard at the net and those types of things."

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: Every fan has a story. We're inviting you to share yours by using the hashtag #MyHockeytown.https://t.co/GbPMIO0pra | #LGRW pic.twitter.com/k0sA2MMOcA

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