Detroit — With the scored tied 2-2 and less than three minutes left in their most recent game, Sunday, the Red Wings were desperate for their first win in seven attempts.
But trouble threatened.
The Panthers launched two stiff forays through the neutral zone and over the Red Wings blue line. Both times, with Dylan Larkin back-checking vigorously to strongly support the defensemen, the Wings turned them back.
Then, in overtime, with Vincent Trocheck flying in on the left wing with the puck and his point-per-game offensive output, Anthony Mantha caught him from behind.
Taking the most efficient angle, Mantha knocked Trocheck into the boards with emphasis, just over the Wings’ blue line.
And, in his second game since returning to the lineup, Andreas Athanasiou score the all-important first goal of the game on a slap shot, just after five minutes into the first period.
That Athanasiou returned directly to the lineup, after missing training camp, preseason and the first 10 games is remarkable, let alone that he looks bigger and maybe even faster, if such a thing is possible.
The Red Wings say they want to make the playoffs this season. But it is easy to argue development is a bigger priority six seasons after they launched a self-described “rebuild on the fly.”
A dozen games into the season, Larkin and Mantha are starting to make significant impacts defensively and Athanasiou is exhibiting the determination and discipline required for a promising prospect to become a star. And it looks, so far, like the Wings are developing more successfully than winning.
If there are stars in this lineup, beyond Henrik Zetterberg, they must be developed.
Athanasiou, Larkin and Mantha are the current candidates, and their full advancement as NHL players is arguably the most important gauge for evaluating the Red Wings season.
Asked about the late third period shifts with all the back-checking, Larkin said helping out defensively is made easier simply by playing more games.
“A lot of it is experience,” said the 21-year-old, who has played 172 NHL games.
“A lot of it is hustle and determination to get back. That’s something I’ve been trying to work on, obviously.”
That includes all of the extra conditioning work and concentration on nutrition that players like Larkin do early in their careers, pursuing success.
All three young Red Wings clearly have developed physically, and it is good evidence of their intent and determination.
But there is more going on, too. And some of it is evident, after a dozen games.
They are feeling the NHL game better, seeing it better, and expecting the course of play.
“I think it’s anticipating where to be, where the puck is going to be,” Larkin said. “Not rushing into over back-checking is a thing, too; where you go in too deep and leave a lane open.”
Mantha’s immediate response to what he saw developing in overtime also proved integral to making the play, he said.
Mantha talked at the start of the season about how increasing familiarity with the flow of play is helping him engage more quickly in game situations.
“You get used to the similar plays you see out there,” he said.
“For me, it’s just getting quicker, getting smarter and to continue to go that way.”
Athanasiou’s development became a solitary affair a couple of months ago, as he grappled with the business side of the sport in hope of obtaining a better contract.
It would be hard to expect more from a self-preparation job than practicing just briefly with the team and re-entering the lineup immediately, let alone eschewing any conditioning stint in Grand Rapids.
“My trainer did a good job of just making sure when I was going to play that I would be ready,” Athanasiou said, of working out in Vaughan, near his home in Ontario.
“There’s a rink there, it’s where my trainer is based out of.”
While Athanasiou has picked up size, he said it is a byproduct of his desire and a training goal to increase his speed.
Through two games, it is also clear that body-checking has less effect now. But he also says he is faster.
“We just went into the summer and said I want to get faster,” Athanasiou said. “So we just took the steps to do that.”
They are a promising trio, and given the state of the reconstruction of the Red Wings’ lineup, much hope is placed in them.
Athanasiou, after just two games, is anticipating better play, with more experience, and especially just playing with the other guys again regularly.
“Even these last two games, you can’t really say the chemistry is coming back real quick,” he said.
“There’s still so much more that’s going to build each and every game, each and every shift, and every practice.”