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Wings' Nyquist scores 2, Howard blanks Sharks

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
The Sharks' Matt Nieto and the Red Wings' Gustav Nyquist battle in the first period.

Detroit — It's only four games, but for the Red Wings, it seems like 0-2 was a long time ago.

The Wings won their fourth straight game Saturday, defeating the defending Western Conference champion Sharks 3-0, with a fine 30-save performance by Jimmy Howard — who won adoring plaudits from the fans —and two goals by a suddenly sizzling hot Gustav Nyquist.

Two upstarts, Andreas Athanasiou and rookie defenseman Ryan Sproul had good games, with Athanasiou converting a sparkling play by Thomas Vanek into the Red Wings' third goal, and a poke check and adroit pass by Sproul leading to Nyquist’s second goal.

What a difference a week makes.

BOX SCORE: Red Wings 3, Sharks 0

After opening with almost four bad periods out of the first six in two losses, to the Lightning and Panthers, with Pavel Datsyuk playing in Russia and a lineup in significant flux — especially with the World Cup of Hockey delaying any familiarity among new players — the Wings looked like they were gasping for air, looking for something to grab before going under.

No longer.

Reeling off wins against the Senators, Rangers, Predators and Sharks, the sensibility of the team is changed.

“It was a good week for us,” said the captain, Henrik Zetterberg. “After the first two games, there’s a little bit of a different feeling in this room now."

In addition to more puck possession, Zetterberg said, “I think we’re playing better in our own end. I think we’re faster, we’re quicker.

“We’re stopping them earlier.

“They don’t spend as much time (in the offensive zone) as they did in the first two games. And when we do that, we can spend more time in their end.

“We’ve been doing the stuff that we want to do good. And when we do that, we are playing well.

“But, still, we have things to work on.”

The sellout crowd serenaded Howard with loud chants of “Jim-my How-ard! Jim-my How-ard!” in the third period, and he welcomed it. But he was especially enthusiastic about how the team played.

“It was great to hear them chant my name,” said the 32-year-old goalie, who has lost his grip on the No. 1 goaltending spot in favor of Petr Mrazek. “But, all in all, I thought that was probably our most complete game so far, as a team.

“I thought we really executed really well tonight, especially on the PK, because that’s a very dangerous power play.”

Howard earned the 23rd shutout of his career, and his first career win against San Jose, in the Sharks' last game at Joe Louis Arena, after going 0-5-3.

He is 2-0 with a 0.50 goals-against average and .985 save percentage.

After a scoreless first period, in which the Red Wings outshot the Sharks, 11-6, Nyquist opened the scoring at 4:14 of the second period.

Breaking in on a two-on-one with Athanasiou to his left, Nyquist let his teammate’s considerable speed carry him to the net and gave him a look before letting a wrist shot rip from the right circle, about parallel with the dot.

With Athanasiou as a decoy, Nyquist beat goalie Martin Jones just under the crossbar.

It was Nyquist’s second goal of the season and he has now scored in consecutive games.

Jonathan Ericsson assisted, his second of the season, and 100th NHL point.

The Sharks generated more offense in the second period, outshooting the Red Wings, 9-3, by the 11-minute mark of the period.

But Nyquist scored again, 10-plus minutes later from just a little closer with another wrist shot, after Sproul, the Wings’ rookie defenseman, set him up.

Sproul curtailed an emerging Sharks rush 18 feet inside of their blue line when he confronted  forward Matt Nieto, took the puck from him and fed Nyquist almost simultaneously.

Nyquist’s powerful shot appeared to hit Jones in the torso, but rolled up over his arm and in.

“It’s always nice to score goals, obviously, and it’s nice to see the team play the way we did on a back-to-back,” Nyquist said after the game, in which he was named the first star.

“I think, except for the Rangers game, we are skating a lot better. We are managing the puck way better. We’re breaking out easier from our zone, and not spending as much time in there.”

In the third period, Vanek authored a sparkling play of hustle and grit.

About six minutes in, Vanek had just been at the Sharks net trying desperately to generate scoring chances. A moment later, he beat a Sharks attacker to a puck just inside the Wings’ blue line.

Securing it, he turned back on offense and found Athanasiou on the other side of the ice, approaching the Sharks blue line.

Vanek hit the target perfectly and went to the bench.

With tons of clear ice in front of him and no rival for his speed on the ice, Athanasiou skated in and fired a shot that beat Jones to provide the Red Wings with a three-goal cushion with less than 14 minutes remaining.

“It was a good head’s-up play by (Vanek), and I kind of saw the San Jose line change so I peeled off to the side and he made a great tape-to-tape pass,” Athanasiou said.

“I just put my head down and shot it as hard as I could.”

It was Athanasiou’s first goal, in limited playing time, so far this season.

“Your eyes definitely open wide when you see them change like that, with all the open ice on the weak side,” he said.

“It was a great head’s-up play by Vanek.”

Coach Jeff Blashill, Zetterberg and the players seem pleased, but 4-2 is not even out of October, let alone a playoff berth, let alone playing through to at least the second round.

That is all more than five months away, a long road for an evolving club.

But, the Red Wings had a good week.

“I thought we were on our game, pretty good,” Blashill said, of the effort Saturday against the Sharks.

“We did a real good job of getting back above the puck (on defense), creating turnovers, and then I thought we played real fast; I thought we attacked up ice fast with our speed, really good.

“So, from a process standpoint, I thought it was really good.”