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Wings’ Ryan Sproul makes immediate impact

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Ryan Sproul

Detroit — It was a big play, because it increased the Red Wings lead over the Sharks to two. But if it heralds how Ryan Sproul plays, the impact could be far more significant.

Amid a difficult second period Saturday, when the opposition set upon Jimmy Howard, Sproul made a lightening-quick recovery from a tight spot for a defenseman.

Having rushed the net, shot on goal and failed to score, he was deep in the zone when Sharks forward Matt Nieto gained control of the rebound and suddenly was on his way, with teammates. In a blink, so was Sproul.

From behind, he gained on Nieto and crashed his 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame into him. The puck was loose. Sproul’s quick stick attended to both the puck and an instantaneous, highly receivable pass to Gustav Nyquist, who scored his second goal of the night.

The 23-year-old defenseman had his second point in the NHL, assists in consecutive games and Nyquist’s appreciation.

“Yeah, real nice,” Nyquist said. “Obviously he was in deep there and he was coming back and he made a good play with his stick, and a nice little drop pass to me.”

Two seasons ago, Sproul had a tough time playing in Grand Rapids. Jeff Blashill was a witness to the growing pains.

Last season, Sproul improved significantly for the Griffins.

He and Xavier Ouellet, both second-round picks by the Red Wings in 2011, made the roster out of training camp and are replacing Niklas Kronwall in the lineup, as Kronwall contends with a bothersome knee.

“I thought Sproully competed real hard,” Blashill said of the young defenseman’s third NHL game. “He’s got the ability to skate the puck out of the zone. He’s got an NHL skill set, there’s no doubt about it.

“If he competes that hard and he plays with that type of aggressiveness defensively, he’s going to be a real good player.”

Back on track

Six games into a new season, Nyquist is hot. It seems to feel even better than it might, after last season when too little playing time contributed to too few goals.

The 27-year-old now is in his sixth season and much is expected, especially with Pavel Datsyuk skating for St. Petersburg in the KHL.

Nyquist had a huge World Championship for Sweden in the spring, scoring seven goals, tying him for most in the tournament. After playing in the 2014 Olympics, he was a surprising omission from the Swedish roster for the World Cup of Hockey.

He has three goals in the past two games for seven points on the season.

“It’s nice to score goals,” he said. “Obviously, I didn’t do a good enough job of that last year. But it’s early. You know I didn’t score the first few games and now I managed to score a couple. So, that was obviously nice.”

Blashill’s appraisal was considerably upbeat.

“Gus has had a real good start to the year,” he said. “Going into the game tonight he had a point per game, and he got two goals tonight.

“I thought he played real good.”

Sunny ‘D’

A critical element leading the Red Wings’ sharp improvement since the start of the season is better play by the defensemen. With less time in their own zone and quicker movement out of it, the Wings are exposing their two goalies less frequently, possessing the puck more often and creating increased offense.

New resources acquired in the offseason reinforced the forwards, after Datsyuk’s departure. But the needs and deficiencies of the defense were apparent amid the disappointment of last season.

If the corps can manage improvement, prospects for the regular season are significantly enhanced.

“I just think our D-corps as played much better as individuals, and so as a group we’ve played better because of that,” Blashill said.

He was particularly complimentary of Jonathan Ericsson, who has had a tough time in recent seasons, including a hip impingement that requires treatment.

“That’s what we need out of the D-corps,” Blashill said. “They’re a group that can be real good. We’re going to need them to excel, as they have.”

Less is more

Andreas Athanasiou arguably played his best game for the Red Wings on Saturday, in 8:44 of playing time — well short of his season-high of 14:59. Athanasiou had three shots, a goal and a nice takeaway during 12 shifts, the lowest among forwards.

His poke check and puck extrication while back-checking tenaciously five minutes into the game erased a perilous turnover by the Wings.

In 41 career games, Athanasiou has 10 goals and five assists.

In and out of the lineup clearly is not as easy for a player as being in, if only because repetitions help timing and breed familiarity with team mates and, especially for a young player, game situations.

“I just come ready to practice, ready to work and whenever I come in and see my name on the game sheet, I’ll be ready,” Athanasiou said.