Defensive change sparks Detroit

How'd the Red Wings stop their slide? Why can't the Islanders stop theirs? Answers and a whole lot more.

Updated: December 5, 2003, 10:14 AM ET
By Barry Melrose | Special to ESPN.com

Open Ice

If it ain't broke, don't try and fix it. So say the Detroit Red Wings, who have returned to their tried and true defensive method, the left-wing lock.

Now that it's back, suddenly, there's less confusion and running around in Detroit. The Red Wings look more comfortable. They're giving up fewer odd-number chances, and they're still scoring.

On the Wings way to the Stanley Cup in 2002, ESPN regularly highlighted the left-wing lock. Here's what it entails:

When the opposing team has the puck and starts coming out of their zone, the left winger goes to the far side of the rink and plays back as a defenseman. So, when the opposing team is coming at them, you'll see three Detroit players (two defensemen and one winger) going backward through the neutral zone, and thus preventing the odd-man rush.

It's a tough system for the left winger to play because he's basically in a defensive posture for most of the game. Oftentimes, his offensive numbers will slip. Coach Dave Lewis initially deserted the system in an effort to put his own stamp on the team, and to open things up for Brendan Shanahan to get more involved offensively.

Lewis implemented a more attacking style, where two players attack the puck while a third stays high in the zone. But if the high player wasn't disciplined or read an opponent wrong, they'd give up a lot of three-on-two's and two-on-one's.

So, things didn't work out quite how Lewis had anticipated. He went back to old faithful, and it's working well.


This week's starting lineup

Marty Turco
Turco
Goaltender
Marty Turco, Dallas Stars: Turco started the season a little rough. Without Derian Hatcher, Turco is playing behind a very different defense and it has taken him time to adjust. But Turco recorded his first shut out of the season last Friday against the New Jersey Devils, and the Stars are finally starting to come together as a team. Last season, Turco was one of the NHL's best goalies. He's starting to regain that performance level and as a result, Dallas is winning.

Defensemen
Brian Rafalski, New Jersey Devils: The Devils have lost only two of their last 15 games and are one of the East's top teams, thanks largely to Rafalski playing some of the best hockey of his career.

Rob Blake, Colorado Avalanche: Blake has climbed to second in scoring among defensemen with 18 points. The Avs struggled at the season's start, but Blake is starting to play up to expectations and as a result, Colorado is becoming a formidable team.

Forwards
Alex Tanguay, Colorado Avalanche: On a team of stars, Tanguay leads the pack offensively. He's leading the league in assists with 24 and is tied for second with 32 points.

Robert Lang, Washington Capitals: Lang has been one of the rare bright spots for the Capitals this season. I realize I've selected him on previous lists, but he's continued to play great. Currently leading the league with 33 points, Lang is on his way to breaking all of his personal records this season.

Bill Guerin, Dallas Stars: Third in the NHL with 15 goals, while Mike Modano dealt with some off-ice distractions, Guerin carried the Stars' offense on his back. And now, the Stars are aligning and back to their winning ways.


Plus/Minus

Plus: Nashville Predators
How can you not root for the small market team? At the season's start, the Predators had to move a couple of key defensemen for financial reasons. Yet, at the start of December, they're two games over .500 and playing great hockey. Nashville is right in the middle of a playoff race, and they're doing it with young players and players nobody else wanted. Any time a fiscally-challenged club over achieves and is able to hang with the powerhouse money teams, it makes for a good story.

Minus: Carolina Hurricanes
With their strong lineup of talent, the Hurricanes should be playing better. Offensively, nobody is playing well -- Ron Francis, Jeff O'Neill, Rod Brind'Amour, Erik Cole -- not one of those guys is putting the puck in the net consistently. Defensively, it looked like they were going to be awesome, but they've had a lot of breakdowns and just aren't playing well. On paper, Carolina should be up there with the big boys, but they've got to start turning things around.


Puckology

Barry --
Is there any particular reason there are so many players with left-handed shots? I am right-handed and it feels natural to shoot right, as well. Am I not in the majority here??
-- David, Raleigh, N.C..

You're right David. There are a tremendous amount of left-handed shooters compared to righties, but I don't have a reason for it. I remember growing up, there were a lot of times when I was the only right-handed defenseman on the team. Most European players are left-handed. In fact, when I see a right-handed European player, I'm almost shocked. There's no real formula or reason, at least none that I know of, to explain why. But you're correct, right-handed shots are very hard to find in the NHL.


E-mail bag

Hey, Barry:
I've been an Islanders fan since before they won their Stanley Cups and I'm wondering what's wrong with them now that their ownership issues are behind them? They started out the season strong and now they stink on ice! How would you try and fix them?
-- Mike, Ronkonkoma, N.Y.

The Islanders ownership spent some money to improve their team, which is great. But at the beginning of November, they had to move forward Jason Wiemer because of money. When they couldn't make a reasonable trade, Wiemer, who is a good player, was put on waivers and picked up by the Minnesota Wild.

You're right, the Islanders started strong, but everything they did so well at the season's start -- solid defense, limiting mistakes, strong goaltending and good special teams -- has since ceased. Their power play has been terrible and their penalty kill, which was pretty good, gave up two first-period goals to the Capitals on Tuesday night.

Alexei Yashin isn't scoring consistently, Michael Peca isn't scoring at all, and they're shaking up the lines to try and jump-start something. Defensively, they should be solid, but they're giving up a lot of odd-man rushes. During the Islanders' six-game winning streak, they were solid in all of the aforementioned aspects. Now they've lost six in a row and are getting booed out of their own building.

To make matters worse, there's been talk about a fragile mentality. That means when things start going bad, they continue downhill -- fast. So, this is a huge turning point for New York. I would think that Mike Milbury, who's never been shy about making a trade, will pull of a deal pretty quickly.

Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN. He'll answer selected questions submitted to his e-mail bag each week. Also, click here to send Barry a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Barry Melrose

NHL studio analyst
Former NHL player and coach Barry Melrose is an NHL studio analyst for ESPN.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE NHL HEADLINES

MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM