Red Wings' Thomas Vanek rises to occasion in 1,000th career game

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — What a night for Thomas Vanek.

The veteran forward, thus far, hasn’t had the best season of his long, successful career, but playing in his 1,000th career game Friday, Vanek had a game to remember.

Vanek scored a goal, played just over 16 minutes (16:04), had several quality chances, only to be turned away by Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, and was part of arguably the Wings’ most consistent line all game, with Anthony Mantha and Frans Nielsen.

With family and friends in town, Vanek had one of his best games of the season.

“Having my wife and kids here, my kids are old enough so they understand what’s going on,” said Vanek of the career milestone. “It’s a special moment for all of us.”

When asked about the goal, banking a shot off Rinne in the second period that tied the game, Vanek was wonderfully honest.

“I was pumped,” Vanek said. “It was great, a lot of fun. The fans were great. We got the win, it was perfect.”

Teammates appeared to be looking for Vanek all game, hoping to get the popular veteran on the scoresheet in his milestone evening.

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Anthony Mantha set up Vanek with a drop pass just in front of Rinne in the third period, but Rinne was able to keep the score tied with a great stop.

“It gives me chills thinking about him scoring in his 1,000th game and us getting the win,” said forward Dylan Larkin, who won the game in overtime. “He was fired up. Just congrats to him and his family. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears from everyone in the family and I know they’re here enjoying it and it’s awesome.”

Vanek missed nearly three weeks in November after suffering a knee injury on Oct. 30, and was slow to recapture his timing and offensive instincts after returning.

Coach Jeff Blashill feels Vanek reached a higher level Friday.

“He was excellent,” Blashill said. “He had a lot of jump in his legs, he won tons of pucks (battles). When he does that, he makes a lot of players.

“When the puck is on his stick in the offensive zone, he makes tons of plays. He’s an excellent competitor and person. I’m real happy for him.”

Overtime magic

Friday’s overtime goal was Larkin’s fourth of the season, establishing a single-season Wings’ franchise record, and also giving him the NHL lead.

Larkin enjoys the opportunities overtime presents offensively.

“There’s opportunity for offensive chances and built for a player like myself and Double-A (Andreas Athanasiou) and Gus (Nyquist), there’s a lot of open ice,” Larkin said. “The goals, they count the same whether it’s 3-on-3 or 5-on-5.”

Larkin was determined to avenge a poor Wings’ power play earlier in overtime, when they didn’t get a shot on net and struggled on the 4-on-3 advantage.

Blashill saw a familiar Larkin characteristic in overtime.

“The want is always there with him,” Blashill said. “He wants the moment. Some guys don’t totally want the moment. He absolutely, 100 percent, wants the moment. The growth process in him has been understanding.”

Ice chips

Nashville is one of the NHL’s best teams, have been for several years. But the Wings, with Friday’s win, improved their record to 8-1 in their last nine games against the Predators.

… Per NHL Stats, Vanek became the fourth player to score a goal while skating in their 1,000th NHL game in Wings’ history. The others: Henrik Zetterberg (2017), Ivan Boldirev (1984) and Dean Prentice (1968).

… Assisting on Tyler Bertuzzi’s third period goal, Gustav Nyquist now has 19 points (8 goals, 11 assists) in his last 20 games.

Twitter: @tkulfan

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Outlook: The Stanley Cup-champion Capitals (24-12-4) lead the Metropolitan Division and are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games. … LW Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL with 30 goals, while C Nicklas Backstrom (34 assists) and G Braden Holtby (.910 SVS, 2.92 GAA) are other keys in a powerful lineup.