Red Wings’ Mantha gains respect for answering the bell

Ted Kulfan The Detroit News

Tampa, Fla.  — Anthony Mantha is willing to fight, willing to protect himself or a smaller teammate.

He’s shown that trait all season.

But in doing so Thursday, accepting a challenge from Tampa Bay’s Luke Witkowski (Western Michigan), Mantha paid the consequences.

Mantha fractured a finger and is done for the final week of the regular season.

“He’s done a terrific job this year, whether it’s scoring or fighting, hitting, he’s a big, physical forward,” forward Justin Abdelkader said. “It’s unfortuante to see that happen. That’s part of fighting. Sometimes you can risk injury and it’s unfortunate when guys get hurt.”

Witkowski challenged Mantha, after Mantha fought Tampa’s Greg McKegg last week and landed punches on McKegg after the Lightning player had already hit the ice, breaking the unofficial code.

Witkowski got the best of Mantha Thursday, clearly winning the fight.

In the process Mantha injured his finger, cutting short his season.

Mantha scored two breakaway goals Monday in Carolina, giving him 17 goals for the season (with 19 assists) and a plus-10 plus-minus rating.

Mantha wasn’t available for comment after Thursday’s game.

“It’s a loss, and there’s no question in the last three games or whatever, he’s been coming and playing better hockey,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “I like Anthony a lot. He cares a ton. He wants to be a real good player and it’s unfortunate that he’s out.”

Blashill doesn’t mind Mantha is willing to fight, and feels that’s part of what makes Mantha an intriguing top prospect going forward.

“He’s a tough kid, he sticks up for himself, and it was unfortunate his finger got tangled up there,” Blashill said. “But he’s a tough kid.

“When you show you’re going to stick up for yourself, word gets around the league and you gain a lot of respect around the league, so it’s an important part of it. Part of what he brings is his total package, his toughness, and ability to fight when needed. It’s unfortunate the injury happened.”

Teammates felt good about Mantha answering the challenge from Witkowski, and others this season, but also are disappointed Mantha’s offensive ability will be missing these final five games.

“Mo is a big body and playing well for us, so of course it’s tough to lose him,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “It’s a dual thing, where of course it’s nice to see him step up like that but at the same time, we’d like Mo to play as much hockey as possible.

“Of course any time you end up in a fight, you do get the risk of hurting yourself and that’s what happened.”

Energy needed

The Red Wings are in the midst of an excessively busy schedule to end the regular season, but Blashill doesn’t want to see that as an excuse for ragged, un-energized play.

Blashill wasn’t pleased with Thursday’s loss in Tampa.

“Not good enough,” Blashill said. “I didn’t think we had enough guys ready to go from the drop of the puck. We certainly had some that were competitive, but too many guys not having their ‘A’ or ‘B’ games.”

That was the Red Wings’ fourth game in five nights, fifth game in seven , and they’re not done yet.

Saturday, the Red Wings host Toronto — sixth game in nine nights — and after an off day Sunday, the Red Wings play back-to-back games against Ottawa.

“It’s a lot of games, mentally and physically, I understand,” Blashill said. “But we can’t allow that to be acceptable. We’re going to have to get some rest here and be better on Saturday.

“We have to find a way to get energy and be sharper.”

Maple Leafs at Red Wings

Faceoff: 7 p.m. Saturday, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit

TV/radio: FSD/97.1

Outlook: Toronto (37-24-15, 89 points) is rolling toward a playoff spot, having won seven of its last 10 games (7-2-1)…Rookie C Auston Matthews (36 goals) has been just as good as expected.