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Athanasiou stepping up, seizing chance with Wings

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Andreas Athanasiou, right, battles Blackhawks' Brandon Saad for the puck during a preseason game.

Detroit — Hard on the forecheck in the Blackhawks zone, Andreas Athanasiou got on the puck carrier before the opponent knew the Red Wings speedy fourth-year center had tracked him.

With a swift movement of his stick, Athanasiou took the puck. His next movement provided a quick pass to Dylan Larkin.

As they often say in hockey, Larkin “made no mistake.”

A short-handed goal, created by Athanasiou’s aggressiveness, guile and skill. It added to his four-point total against the Blackhawks on Tuesday.

Credited with five points during the game, NHL off-ice officials later took away one of his three assists, to go with his two goals.

Athanasiou, 24, is showing early signs of making a significant move in his career, during a season in which the Wings are left to hope some of their prospects catch fire.

Putting a difficult season behind him, Athanasiou has moved to center and is arguably the most impressive forward for the Wings six games into preseason.

“Yeah, I think everyone’s playing really well,” Athanasiou said, deflecting compliments.

“Every team that we put on the ice is coming out and playing really hard, making a lot of good plays to win games. So, it’s definitely good to see.”

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On nights when he has been in the preseason lineup, however, it is often Athanasiou leading the way.

Pressed to talk about it his personal achievement, the talented forward from London, Ontario shrugged.

“I mean, it’s definitely a good feeling, obviously, to have the points come like that," he said. "And, it’s definitely a good feeling to have the puck bounce your way right from the beginning like that.

“The first shift we got one. It kind of set the tone.”

It became difficult for Athanasiou to set the tone last year.

After holding out, he re-signed on July 5.

He reported in game condition, impressing the Red Wings.

He handled the discordant negotiations, the swirling speculation he might be trade bait and the late start with composed confidence.

Athanasiou seems to be doing all he can to make the early days of 2018-19 matter.

“I think, with a lot of games, I’ll get a good amount of opportunities, and I’ll have those opportunities to produce like that,” Athanasiou said.

The move to center is beneficial for much the same reasons other Red Wings centers say it helps their game. The Wings, especially, rely heavily on centers to drop back on defense and stay involved along all 200-feet of action.

That sort of defense can lead to a lot of offense.

“When you play center, you’re kind of more involved in the play throughout the ice, whether it’s D-Zone or the neutral zone or O-Zone, as opposed be being out on the wing and kind of locked into that position,” Athanasiou said.

“As a center man, you’re more involved in the D-Zone and it allows you to play a free-flowing game, and it allows you to come on to puck with a lot of speed.

“It’s definitely something that suits my game, and something that I like doing, for sure.”

Athanasiou played in 71 games last season, scoring 16 goals and assisting on 17 to push his career totals to 43 goals and 33 assists in 172 games played.

Coach Jeff Blashill has often explained limiting Athanasiou’s minutes in the past three seasons as a matter of desiring a more consistent performance all over the ice.

Blashill likes what he sees so far in the preseason.

“He’s been great from day one in camp,” he said. “He’s been excellent.

“His first practice, he was excellent. He was excited to be on a line with Thomas (Vanek), and they’ve been dynamic together. They think the game at a high level. They track like crazy. They’ve competed defensively. Anybody I’ve put with them has been good.

“I think Double-A’s had some great games, so far.”

With the Red Wings famished for goals last season, and Henrik Zetterberg, who accounted for much of the offense, out of the lineup this season, Athanasiou’s improved performance may be in the nick of time.

“I think that everyone knows without him, it’s a big part of our team missing,” said Athanasiou, who talked about some of the sadness he and others feel without Zetterberg around Little Caesars Arena.

“A lot of minutes, and just everything on and off the ice with him. It’s definitely something that needs to be fulfilled, and I think everyone’s going to do a good job of stepping up.

“And, I’ll do my best to step up for that. It’s an opportunity for a lot of guys, as well.”

So far, Athanasiou is seizing the opportunity. He has looked like a straw capable of a lot of stirring.

Red Wings at Maple Leafs

Faceoff: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Scotiabank Arena, Toronto

TV/radio: NHL Network

Outlook: Jeff Blashill said Red Wings will play comparatively more NHL regulars, along with four young defensemen battling for roster slots — Dennis Cholowski, Joe Hicketts, Filip Hronek and Libor Sulak. The Leafs are likely to counter with one of their better preseason lineups.

Twitter: @greggkrupa