Red Wings recall of Athanasiou an effort to boost offense

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit – The calls went out. The requirements are clear.

With five home games in nine days, and the Red Wings cushion in the playoff race down to one point entering play Friday, they know it is time for action.

The Wings need some points, now.

They need more offense.

They need a better power play and penalty kill.

And they need to play a lot better at home, where they are 11-10-5 compared to 14-8-3 on the road.

After practice Friday, players talked about returning to the level of play they demonstrated on a brilliant six-game trip the first two weeks of last month.

Meanwhile, the Red Wings summoned more speed from Grand Rapids, 21-year-old Andreas Athanasiou. Jeff Blashill said he would use Athanasiou on a line with Tomas Tatar (14-16-30 in 50 games) and Gustav Nyquist (14-13-27 in 51 games), whose high-flying, early season performances lost altitude.

“It’s kind of like a reset button right now,” Kyle Quincey said of the state of the Wings season. “It’s like a dash to the finish.

“We felt we were doing pretty good, and you look, and you’ve got teams winning nine of 10 and passing us. The teams that were kind of down and out early are putting together a pretty good stretch, here.

“So, we’ve got to match that.

“We know, tomorrow’s game, we’ve just got to get ourselves a win and get ourselves going again.”

Perceiving the need for speed after two disappointing losses to divisional rivals, the Lightning and Panthers, the Wings got Athanasiou on the phone in Rockford, Illinois, where he expected to prepare for an American Hockey League game between Grand Rapids and Rockford, and by 2 p.m., he was at practice in Detroit.

“We think we can really have an identity of being an extremely fast team,” Blashill said. “When you go (Darren) Helm, Athanasiou, (Dylan) Larkin — it’s just a team that can have a lot of team speed.”

In six games earlier in the year, Athanasiou scored a goal on a marvelous breakaway, demonstrating ample speed of the sort that concerned opponents.

In Grand Rapids, he tallied eight goals and eight assists in 26 games.

The London, Ontario, native said he is looking forward to playing with the two offensive threats, Nyquist and Tatar.

“I think we can generate a lot of offense,” said the 6-foot-2, 200-pound forward, whom the Wings drafted in the fourth round (110th overall) in 2012. “There’s a lot of skill on that line, so I think my speed can open up some ice for them.

“Let them do their work, and I’ll help them out as much as I can.”

Nyquist, like several of the Wings, seemed befuddled by the general failure to score more, especially when the team manages a lot of possession in the offensive zone, shots and scoring chances.

“Our single focus is to win the game tomorrow,” he said. “It’s a big game for us.

“Most of our games, neither of the teams score many goals. It’s tough to get the room to get good chances. But we have created some chances, it’s just that when we get them, we’d better bear down and make sure that we score.”

And the goals are not coming in the accustomed fashion from some familiar sources.

While Nyquist and Tatar cooled, Pavel Datsyuk has only a half-dozen in 36 games.

Henrik Zetterberg certainly has done more than his share as a playmaker, with 25 assists, to lead the team by seven, but his goal-scoring lags. Zetterberg has nine goals in 51 games.

Mike Green got his third goal this season Thursday. The Red Wings hoped for more from their $6 million free agent defenseman, the most important acquisition on the blue line since Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski retired in consecutive seasons.

Part of Green’s problem was obvious against the Panthers on Thursday. After he fired four shots that were blocked amid the tight defensive play that is dominating the NHL, Green’s fifth got through — all of the way to the inside of the net.

The 11-year veteran’s skyward look of relieved frustration said it all.

“You stay persistent,” Green said. “You keep shooting, and hopefully you get lucky bounces. But it’s definitely tight.

“The game’s changed a little bit in the sense that forwards stay a little bit higher, they collapse a little bit higher to the D-men so we can’t shoot. It makes it real difficult to get pucks through.

“But as D-men, we’ve got to find a way. And we can do a better job of it.”

Howard struggling

Goaltender Jimmy Howard, after losing Thursday in Florida, hasn’t won since Dec.3 and is winless in his last seven decisions (0-4-3).
Howard’s record is now under .500 (7-8-4) and his save percentage (.904) and goals-against average (2.89) have suffered.

“Certainly puck luck wasn’t going his way (Thursday),” Blashill said. “The chances they got were some real good chances. He battled. He’s just got to continue to stay mentally tough and keep working hard.”

While admitting he wouldn’t mind seeing some good luck come his way, Howard added it’s up to him to fight through these struggles.

“I’m not going to sit here and make excuses to you guys,” Howard said. “I’m just going to continue to work.”

Maturing Smith

Blashill likes the way defenseman Brendan Smith has learned to limit risky plays and learn when to go after high-reward plays.

“He’s managed his game pretty well. Everybody makes mistakes. They all make them in different ways,” Blashill said. “Some show up more glaringly than others.

"He’s made more positive plays than negatives, and that’s what I look at the end of the night for each guy.”

Smith grown by gaining experience this season.

“He just has to manage the risk,” Blashill said. “It’s all to me the risk-reward. Is their reward in the risk that you’re taking? If there is, we can handle it. If there’s not, you shouldn’t take it. So that’s something he’ll continue to grow as a hockey player.”

Islanders at Red Wings 

Faceoff: 2 p.m., Saturday, Joe Louis Arena.
TV/radio: FSD; 97.1, 1270. 
Outlook:   The Islanders (26-17-6, 58 points) are coming off a 3-2 loss Wednesday in Washington and clinging to a playoff spot…The Islanders have the second-ranked penalty kill (87.1 percent)…LW Brock Nelson has 20 goals.

Ted Kulfan contributed