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Wojo: Wings' young guns learning to fly

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News


Detroit right wing Anthony Mantha goes after the puck in the first period.

Detroit – If they’re gonna make a move up, this is when it has to happen. If they’re gonna climb into the playoff hunt, this is how it has to happen.

For the first time in a while, the Red Wings are making us notice. The fans at Joe Louis Arena certainly noticed, standing and roaring as the game ended Monday, a 1-0 victory over first-place Montreal. The Wings just beat two of the best teams in the league back to back, and did it with youthful flair and veteran savvy, with a wide-open offense against the Penguins, then a tight defense against the Canadiens.

Of course, this could be a fleeting burst, like the blast of an air horn. Seldom do fortunes dramatically, permanently shift in two games. But in the race between growing old and growing up, youth is starting to catch up, and the Wings will not quietly bid farewell to an old arena and a long playoff streak.

The next two weeks are enormous, and not just because the Wings play five of seven at home. The March 1 trade deadline looms, and nobody expects them to be buyers. They’re seventh in their division, four points out of a playoff spot.

The logical strategy is for them to be sellers if they’re not within a few points of the playoffs. The problem is that’s almost completely foreign to this franchise, and they will not adopt it easily.

“I don’t want to make too much out of two games, but we’ve seen we are capable of doing this,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “We’ve had games where we’ve played well, then all of a sudden we take a couple steps back. We have enough skill, we have enough players that create stuff, that as long as we have good structure without the puck, we’re capable of winning.”

Fresh faces and legs

We hadn’t seen it much of the season. The Wings hadn’t won two straight since Dec. 4-6, and if the 6-3 victory over Pittsburgh Saturday night got people on their feet, this one perhaps got people thinking.

Against the Penguins, it was Andreas Athanasiou, 22, with an end-to-end rush that produced a mesmerizing highlight goal. Against the Canadiens, it was experienced Thomas Vanek, 32, who scored the lone goal, and he’s been an undervalued addition. Rookie goaltender Jared Coreau again filled in ably, recording his second shutout in his past four outings.

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The Wings aren’t used to leaning heavily on fresh faces, but now that they have no choice, there’s no turning back. It seemed like a formula destined to end the 25-year playoff streak. But the way Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha and others are developing, picking up the void as Dylan Larkin struggles in his second season, new things seem possible.

Vanek leads the Wings with 12 goals, and the odd reality is if he continues to do well but the Wings falter, he’d be a prime candidate to be dealt. So would Mike Green, 31, with one year and $6 million left on his deal after this season.

“Guys that have been through it before like myself, it’s a business,” said Vanek, who signed a one-year deal with the Wings after getting bought out by Minnesota. “I like it here, I like the guys, my family likes it here. So obviously, I’m hoping to put a good streak together to get ourselves back in the picture, so I can be here.”

The Wings’ young players are accelerating timetables, and accelerating on the ice. Athanasiou has nine goals and is blurring fast. Larkin, still only 20, has 11 goals but is a team-worst minus-17. Mantha, 22, began the season in Grand Rapids and had to make adjustments, mainly on defense.

But for the past couple of weeks — since Athanasiou was a healthy scratch Jan. 4 — the young players have logged more minutes, including defensemen Alexey Marchenko and Xavier Ouellet. Some of that is because of injuries to veterans such as Jimmy Howard, Niklas Kronwall and Brendan Smith, and some is simply earned, although it took a while.

Earning their spots

Call it stubbornness, the franchise’s death grip on the playoff streak and its reluctance to turn minutes over to youngsters. But heading into the new Little Caesars Arena, the Wings figured they had to take a last-gasp shot, and it’s understandable. Now, they’re smack in the middle of the transition, unclear which way to go.

General manager Ken Holland bought time with free-agent pickups that are turning out to be decent, and Jeff Blashill is pushing time by leaning more and more on youth.

“When you’re able to beat those (quality) teams, and outplay them, you walk out and say, when we play the right way, we can be a really good hockey team,” Blashill said. “We already know that, but it certainly helps to have the results. (The youngsters) have done a really good job.”

Mantha averages 17 minutes of ice time, third-most among Wings forwards, and has 22 points in 28 games. His 6-foot-5 frame and skating ability are unique, a combination the Wings weren’t willing to trade.

The question now is can the age and youth mesh quickly enough to make a move up the standings, to avoid a move at the deadline? It’s a race against the clock and the calendar, and for the first time in a while, there are signs it could be close.

“I don’t think we’re quite over the hump yet, we’re a fragile team, a team trying to learn to win,” Vanek said. “We have some great leadership, and then we have young guys who haven’t been there, done that. We’re trying to learn how to build confidence.”

Learning on the fly, rebuilding on the sly. The Wings have shown signs of a potential rise, but they have a way to go, and not a lot of time to get there.