Ericsson helps fill big holes on Wings’ defense

DETROIT — It seems like just yesterday when Jonathan Ericsson was the young defenseman arriving on the scene and making an impact for the Detroit Red Wings.

In the Wings’ 2009 playoff run, Ericsson stunned everyone with his four goals and four assists in the 22 games, and by playing three days after an emergency appendectomy. He had played just 19 regular-season games.

Now 29, Ericsson is part of the Wings’ top defensive pairing, along with fellow Swede Niklas Kronwall.

When Nick Lidstrom retired and Brad Stuart left to return to San Jose, it meant a bigger role for Ericsson.

“They always had a good D corps here, so it just took a while to get in,” Ericsson said. “That’s how they develop all the players here, and I think they’ve done a good job.

“When you get up here, most players are ready to stay up and not be up and down. You have to be patient. Everything doesn’t come all at once. You just have to work your way in.”

Jakub Kindl, who has also stepped up on defense this season, is impressed with what Ericsson has done.

“You just fill the hole,” Kindl said. “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. He’s progressing and getting better every year. He’s only 29 years old, and I’m sure he’s going to have a huge career here.”

Ericsson can relate to much of the criticism rookie defenseman Brendan Smith is going through this season because Ericsson went through it himself.

After the outstanding playoff run in 2009, Ericsson had just four goals and nine assists and was a minus-15 in 62 games in 2009-10.

Since then, Ericsson has elevated his play each year, finishing with one goal and 10 assists and a plus-16 in 69 games in 2011-12.

In this lockout-shortened season, Ericsson had three goals and 10 assists and was a plus-6 in 45 games. In the playoffs, he has three assists and is plus-3.

“You’re always going to have ups and downs throughout your career,” Ericsson said. “You don’t want to take anything back because you learn a lot from that. You learn about yourself and how to handle all situations, and that helped me now.

“That’s a process you need to learn, unless you’re Nick Lidstrom and don’t do anything wrong. Everyone else is going to make mistakes, and you just have to learn from it.”

Although Ericsson said he enjoys every aspect of the game, there’s something that he particularly likes.

“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.”

Ericsson might have thought better of that answer after Monday night. In their 3-1 victory over the Blackhawks, he, Kronwall, Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves got stuck on the ice for an entire two-minute penalty kill and then longer when they couldn’t clear the puck out of the zone.

Ericsson and Miller were out the longest, a full 3 minutes, 15 seconds.

“Three minutes? That must have been some sort of record,” Ericsson said. “I was kind of standing still there in front of the net for a little while, so I was able to catch some big breaths there. I wasn’t as tired after three minutes as I was after two, I think.”

So far this postseason Ericsson hasn’t taken any penalties of his own.

“I haven’t got any penalties? That’s probably going to jinx me,” Ericsson said. “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.”

After injuries and poor play plagued the Wings on defense for much of the season, they finally settled on Ericsson and Kronwall together as the top pair.

Ericsson is fine with that and considers Kronwall as close to Lidstrom as one can possibly get.

“That’s why we call him Nick junior,” Ericsson said. “He’s our best defenseman by far. He’s always doing a good job for us every night. He makes it easy for me.

“We have a good way of communicating out there, and we feed off each other. He makes things more comfortable for me out there.”

That comfort level continues off the ice, too. Ericsson and Kronwall live close to each other and commute to the Joe together, just like Lidstrom once did with Tomas Holmstrom.

Ericsson and Kronwall also got a kick out of watching their brothers compete for Team Sweden in the world championships. Kronwall’s brother, Staffan, is a defenseman and captained the team to a gold-medal win over Switzerland. Ericsson’s brother, Jimmie, is a forward.

“That’s pretty special,” Ericsson said. “I was streaming the game on my computer and hooked it up to my TV.

“Of course, it’s special to have your brother play, and I know Kronner feels the same way. It’s pretty cool that we’re pretty close and to have our brothers win together.”

Now Ericsson and Kronwall would like to return the favor and have Jimmie and Staffan watch them keep winning in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Wings lead the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal, 2-1. Game 4 is Thursday night at the Joe.

“We know we’ve been really close to Chicago many times during the regular season, and we’re playing better now,” Kronwall said. “So why wouldn’t we be able to beat them?

“You have to trust yourself and believe in yourself, and I think we do.”