Young Wings learn to manage high-pressure games

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Dylan Larkin

Detroit – They seemed loose at the morning skate. A power play and penalty kill drill in front of Petr Mrazek led to some aggressive, good-natured tussling and laughter among Kyle Quincey, Dylan Larkin, Justin Abdelkader, Brendan Smith and others.

The “Oh!” greeting shots fired off bars were a little more animated.

For the biggest games, each player finds his own way to his best performance, or does not.

Rest and staying loose usually are critical elements. And when they assert that the pressure-filled games are fun, it can be part of the mental process.

Some young guys who may be Red Wings for a long time are going through their first Wings’ way of ending a regular season, recently – with each tick of each shift containing potentially momentous consequences.

When their coaches and managers talk about the necessity of young players going through each stage – the critical late games of the season, their early playoff games, an elimination, their first conference finals, a Stanley Cup finals -- before they can become champions, it emphasizes the importance of critical games in April, not only for the results of a season but also of careers.

As the roster evolves, it is important work.

Andreas Athanasiou was taking care of business. The speedy forward was to appear in his 29th consecutive game, all pretty important, since cracking the lineup Feb. 6.

Athanasiou excused himself and was quick off his stool after the equipment came off, and back behind the curtains for a rendezvous with therapists. If it was a massage, it would certainly seemed welcome after a brisk skate and some drills, nine hours before puck drop in the biggest game of his first season.

The whole workout, rest, eat, practice, therapy, relax, game, repeat thing is ever more essential late in the season.

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Anthony Mantha talked about how the routine of a nap is both calming and focusing. Pulled out of the lineup, for the first time in the 10 games since he was summoned from Grand Rapids March 14, Mantha said the pressure that comes with the opportunity to play at this time of year does not require much more, really.

“This time of year, battling for a playoff spot is a challenge you build off,” Mantha said. “When there is a championship on the line, or big games in general, that’s why we play hockey.

“We want to play in big games.”

He has played in big games, winning the 2014 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League championship with Val-d’Or and leading Canada in points at the World Junior Championships the same year. But the NHL experience garnered this season is imperative.

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Larkin continues to make the most of it, with his keen perception of the game grasping what changes this time of year.

“It’ll be a battle out there and I think as professionals you’re going to have to get ready on your own,” Larkin said, when asked about any pep talks. “And everyone knows the significance of this game.

“Personally, I’m really excited. It’s a huge game.

“It’s a harder game. More physical,” he said.  “It’s not going to be as flashy as you’d want it to be or as nice as you’d want it to be. It’s getting into hard areas and doing the right thing.

“And, usually for me, it’s taking on a little different role and worrying about my defensive game a little bit more.”

Jeff Blashill’s lineup is both a bit older and significantly younger than those Mike Babcock coached during the past several nip-and-tuck endings. The mainstays are more senior, the young guys both younger and more numerous.

“You play all season long and you want to give yourself an opportunity where you’re in big games, and we’re in a big game tonight. So, let’s enjoy it,” Blashill said.

“But let’s focus on the things that need to be done and that’s focus on the process of playing good hockey.”