John Niyo, Ted Kulfan and Gregg Krupa talk about the Red Wings 16 games into the season.
Detroit — This is why you let them play.
Because this is also how they grow, in confidence and experience. Maybe in stature, too, though Tuesday night’s loss to Tampa Bay — a rough-and-tumbling 4-3 defeat at Joe Louis Arena — actually dropped the Red Wings below .500 on the season.
And prompted their captain, Henrik Zetterberg, to sound another alarm.
“We can’t keep losing games,” he said afterward, “if we want to be a team battling for the playoffs.”
They may yet be one if they play more games the way they played the final 40 minutes against the injury-depleted Lightning, clawing their way back from a 3-1 deficit in the third period only to lose that point late on Nikita Kucherov’s fluky rebound goal with 1:10 remaining in regulation.
But that the Wings were even in it at the end was partly because a couple youngsters made a point with their play Tuesday night.
Rookie defenseman Ryan Sproul finally ignited a Detroit power play that’d been dormant for the better part of a month, netting his first career NHL goal with the man advantage at 7:12 of the third period.
Then he assisted on Zetterberg’s game-tying goal — also on the power play — a couple minutes later. That point-blank opportunity was set up by a nifty, no-look pass across the crease from fellow rookie Anthony Mantha, who’d pounced on a loose puck after Sproul fired another bullet at Tampa goalie Ben Bishop.
“He can really shoot it,” coach Jeff Blashill said of the 23-year-old Sproul, who spent the last three seasons in Grand Rapids. “And it’s one of those shots that creates chaos, because you don’t know where it’s gonna go because it’s so hard. When it hits people, it doesn’t just fall down. It goes lots of places.”
And it’s a big reason, though hardly the only one, why Sproul needs to stay right where he is. Not just in Detroit, but also in the lineup, which is sort of what Blashill promised earlier in the day.
Sproul hadn’t played in seven games, the last five because veteran Niklas Kronwall was back on the ice.
But with Kronwall resting that chronic bad knee again Tuesday — he didn’t look good in the 5-0 loss at Montreal on Sunday — Sproul was given another chance. At the morning skate, Blashill stuck to his pat answer about how long it’d last, saying Sproul’s job was to make sure he was “ready to jump through the window.”
But asked after the game to assess what he’d seen, Blashill praised Sproul’s “shoot-first mentality” and added, “I thought he handled himself pretty well tonight.”
And to his credit, Blashill did, too, sending both Sproul and Mantha out on the ice for a 4-on-3 power play with his team down a goal midway through the period. That move paid off as Mantha, the former first-round pick who’d made his season debut Saturday, found Zetterberg for a crucial goal that brought the Joe Louis Arena crowd to its feet.
“He battles in front and he knew I was standing by myself there,” the Wings’ captain said, “so very nice play.”
Nice to see him playing in Detroit, actually. That’s something the fans have been clamoring for since last season. But it’s something the organization has been reluctant to do, for a variety of reasons. Until now, perhaps.
With injuries to Thomas Vanek and Andreas Athanasiou opening up roster spots, Mantha’s finally getting a real chance to make a genuine impression. He played nearly 19 minutes Saturday in Montreal, and though he only played 13:27 in this one — starting on a line with Darren Helm and Gustav Nyquist — the 22-year-old still got more than 3 minutes of power-play time with the second unit.
“I thought Anthony played pretty well,” Blashill said.
Vanek is expected back soon, but now Helm likely is out for an extended period after taking a nasty spill Tuesday. So Mantha, who’d scored an AHL-best eight goals in 10 games in Grand Rapids, may get a longer look here.
And the way things look for this Red Wings team — sitting in seventh place in the Atlantic Division and on pace for an 82-point season at the moment — that should go without saying, really.
Wherever this team is headed — up, down, sideways — it’s time to let some of these youngsters get a shot. Because as we saw again Tuesday night, they just might be ready to make them count.