Red Wings' Thomas Vanek finally returns to form following knee injury

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — Coach Jeff Blashill was asked about the season Thomas Vanek has had after Wednesday’s morning skate.

It’s been somewhat of a struggle for the veteran forward, and Blashill didn’t sugarcoat it.

Red Wings forward Thomas Vanek, shown here during an October game, had a goal and an assist in Wednesday's victory over the St. Louis Blues.

“Thomas’ start to the year was a bit slow and I’d say since he’s been back, it’s been similar,” Blashill said Wednesday morning. “It’s a speed league in a lot of ways and space, and Thomas creates space with his brain. But until he can come back going full out, it’s hard to create some of that space.”

Blashill added one final quote that would prove prophetic.

“It’s just a matter of time when he feels a bit better and he makes some of those plays,” Blashill said.

Hours later, Vanek had a goal and assist in the Wings’ 4-3 victory over St. Louis.

There were still moments when Vanek was laboring on a knee that was injured on a knee-on-knee collision Oct. 30, forcing him to miss eight games.

But there were also the ability to slow the game down like few players can, make a pinpoint pass where other players wouldn’t dare try, and the ability to put the puck in the net.

“It was his best game since he’s been back,” Blashill said after the victory. “When you’re not a natural skater, when you spend time out (of the lineup), it’s hard to get back. Then when you get back, you’re not necessarily playing a ton of minutes,”

Blashill decided to go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen Wednesday, partly to ease defenseman Jonathan Ericsson back into the lineup in his return, but also to get a few extra shifts for Vanek.

“Part of the reason we dressed 11 forwards was so I could put Double-A (Andreas Athanasiou) with him (Vanek), put (Gustav) Nyquist with him, so now you go Vanek, (Jacob) de la Rose, and Double-A. That could be a second line at times.

“That was Vanek’s best game, for sure. He was a big reason why we won. His competition level was great, so good for him, good for us.”

Vanek had two assists in the first four games since returning from the knee injury. Wednesday’s goal was Vanek’s first since Oct. 20, a quick shot from the slot after a nice feed from Nyquist behind the net.

In just under 12 minutes of ice time (11:27), Vanek had three shots on net, a goal and assist, and a plus-2 rating.

Vanek had the secondary assist on Athanasiou’s goal, finding Mike Green on a dot-to-dot pass that got the Blues defense moving and left Athanasiou room to get free.

“Vanny has one of those rare abilities to create offense out of nothing,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “He’s one of the smartest players I’ve played with offensively. It’s great to have a guy like that back in the lineup.

“He’s also a veteran voice on the bench and in the locker room. He helped settle things down when things went a little sideways (Wednesday).”

Vanek admitted it’s been a struggle at times, as he’s still rounding into full health. But a little confidence, such as Wednesday’s game, will help

“This whole game, it doesn’t matter how old you are, it’s all about confidence,” Vanek said. “If you feel good about your game, you’re a way better player.

“But no one is going to give it you. I just have to practice hard and find my game here. Slowly, I’m feeling better each and every day.”

Lineup shuffle

Just as Ericsson was returning to the lineup, the Wings lost defenseman Trevor Daley to injury.

Daley suffered a lower-body injury in the first period, on play five shifts for a total of 3:18. After the game, Blashill wasn’t sure how long Daley would be out of the lineup, but hinted this weekend’s two games could be in jeopardy.

“I don’t think it’s anything long (term), but it could be through the weekend,” Blashill said. “I’ll know more Friday (at practice; the Wings didn’t practice Thursday).”

Ericsson was a healthy scratch for two games, as Blashill decided not to pull any of the six defensemen who had been in the lineup.

Ericsson played just under 16 minutes (15:57), and was credited with two hits and blocked shots.

“Johnny was good,” Blashill said. “It was good for him, in some ways, that we got down to six (defensemen, after Daley was hurt). Once we got down to six, it’s probably easier for him to get in a regular rotation.

“When you’re not in a regular rotation, it’s harder to get going a little bit.”

Twitter: @tkulfan