DETROIT – Brendan Smith has been partnered with practically every Red Wings defenseman this season.
Tonight, when the Red Wings play host to the New Jersey Devils for the first and only time on the NHL calendar, Smith will be partnered for the first time with Mike Green.
“I played a couple shifts here and there with him,” Smith said. “I’ve had a lot of partners in the last couple of years, just some more adjusting, I’ll be able to do it.”
Smith will definitely have to adjust to playing with Green, and not just because the veteran is a right-handed shot.
“I’ve been watching him pretty closely so there’s some things I’m going to have to do, maybe be a little more safe because he likes to get up there and he’s really good at it,” Smith said. “I think you’ll see a little bit more of a defensive game out of me because of the situation and it makes sense.”
Smith and Green have reputations for jumping into the rush as offensive-minded blue liners, which can, on occasion, lead to lapses in the defensive zone.
Green is second among team defensemen in scoring with 12 points, one behind Niklas Kronwall. Despite missing six games, Green leads all Wings defensemen with 49 shots on goal.
Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill would prefer to match the offensive-minded defensemen with partners who are more responsible long the blue line. But the coach isn’t too concerned about pairing Smith with Green, while Jonathan Ericsson misses his second straight game tonight with an upper-body injury.
“I’ve never been a guy who said ‘you’ve got to had a defensive guy with an offensive guy,’ ” Blashill said. “I’ve never been a guy who’s necessarily worried about that. I think it’s a matter of reading off each other. To be honest I think the most important guy in those situations usually is your F3, your forward. Rarely do you have an issue where both D are caught. The guy that has to cover for the D if he is caught is going to be a forward. If both D are up then two forwards have to cover but that doesn’t happen very often.”
Blashill made the pairing switch midway through Sunday’s 4-2 win over Calgary. He said the Wings will start out that way tonight. They’ll start with Kronwall with Danny DeKeyser and Jakub Kindl with Alexey Marchenko.
Recently, Smith read a story about Washington’s offensive defenseman Nate Schmidt and John Carlson. The two have been paired since Brooks Orpik went down with an injury.
Smith said he’ll just need to be more cognizant of the situations and communicate more with Green tonight.
“They both like to get up in the rush but now they have to choose one to do it,” Smith said of the Capitals’ pair. “That’s something Green and I have to do. I know he wants to get up there, so I’m going to be more aware of that. Whereas when I was with Marchenko, he kind of watches me and makes sure he’s got my back. So there’s definitely going to be a quick learning period but we got to be effective right away.”
ON THE RISE: Just when it looked like the Montreal Canadiens would run away with the Atlantic Division, the Red Wings have a chance to join them atop of the standings tonight.
Should the Wings get two points over New Jersey tonight and the Canadiens lose in regulation at Minnesota, while St. Louis beats the Boston Bruins in any fashion, Detroit would pull into a fist-place tie.
“It just goes to show how close this league is and if you lose a couple of key guys it makes it extremely tough,” Wings goalie Jimmy Howard said. “For us it’s just worrying about ourselves and not worrying about what anyone else is doing throughout the league. For us it’s just continuing to take that next step and becoming a really good team.”
December hasn’t been kind to the Canadiens, who have struggled to a 2-8-0 mark while dealing with the void created by the loss of last season’s league MVP, goalie Carey Price.
Price suffered a lower-body injury on Nov. 25.
This is wear the Wings believe their quality of depth at every position out shines other teams.
“Yeah, it definitely does,” Howard said. “You have to have guys who are willing and able to step in when guys go down, and we’re fortunate in this room that we have that.”
The Canadiens start the season like gangbusters, setting an NHL record with nine straight regulation wins, and they were one victory from tying the best start in league history established by Toronto (1993-94) and Buffalo (2006-07).
Prior to Thanksgiving, the Red Wings had 24 points in the Atlantic Division standings while looking up at Montreal (34) and Ottawa (27).
Since then, Detroit has compiled points in 11 of 12 games (6-1-5) to climb two points within the division lead.
“We know the standings,” Smith said. “We know they’ve kind of been struggling without Price. They’re still first in the division, but we’re just trying to get as many points and trying to play our best hockey. If that‘s how it works out we want to win these games, especially (tonight) and maybe that can help us move in to that position but really we’re not paying too much attention to what they’re doing. Just worrying more or less what we have to do to be first in the division.”