John Niyo and Ted Kulfan take a look at the Red Wings at midseason with NHL Network host Tony Luftman. The Detroit News
Detroit — Anthony Mantha is back, and he is moving.
His quick-strike, unassisted goal in the first period against the Washington Capitals tied the game and provided strong evidence that when his feet are in motion Mantha is an effective power forward.
His two games since returning from injury suggest he intends to play that way.
The big Red Wings forward hurt his hand fighting Dec. 2. He missed 15 games precisely at a point in his development when he produced consecutively several strong performances.
Mantha made plays all over the ice, more frequently. His skating put him in positions to have more impact.
His nine goals through 27 games suggested the potential for a 25-goal season.
Amid hopes for improvement, he was more continually engaged.
Mantha’s ice time increased from about 14-16 minutes a game to 19-21 minutes, approaching Dylan Larkin’s territory.
Given the course of his career, one might have been concerned about how long it would take to return to form, after the injury.
But, Mantha is moving.
“He was a star in the last game,” Jeff Blashill said Sunday of Mantha’s first game back, Friday, against the Predators. “He was flying in the last game.
“Early in this game he was really good. He didn’t sustain it quite as much. But, overall, we’re really happy.
“I think he’s been a real good player from about the Dallas game in this building on.”
On Oct. 28, Mantha scored against the Stars and had two shots on goal. He scored again against the Blue Jackets, in the next game and had three shots on goal.
Against the Devils in the next game, he did not score. But he attained what he has proclaimed as a personal standard, five shots on goal.
In the next 14 games, until his injury, Mantha scored six goals and assisted on three.
Sunday, with the Wings playing well but down a goal to the powerful Capitals, he took the game in his hands.
Jumping over the boards, he saw Thomas Vanek engaging two Capitals near the puck at their blue line.
Mantha arrived briskly, seized the puck and, with his loping strides producing his deceptive speed, off he went towards the goal, where he beat Braden Holtby through the wickets.
In the dressing room, three questioners tried to provoke him to brag about his speed on the play, or at least acknowledge it.
Mantha’s mood after the loss was too wry for boasting.
“I think it’s just a long stick,” he said, deadpan. “I just need to use that to my advantage.”
Blashill expressed considerably more enthusiasm for the play.
“The goal that he scores is a big-time player goal,” the coach said.
Mantha said his conditioning while his hand healed made a difference.
“It was a full month of summer training,” Mantha said. “They’re fresh, right now, and hopefully they’ll stay that way until the end of the year.”
To Blashill, it is a matter of Mantha constantly striving.
“It’s the consistency in moving his feet,” he said.
“Just like any player that wants to take the step, it’s one thing to be a decent player in the NHL or a good player in the NHL: the next step is really hard.
“You’ve got to have elite, elite skill or you’re going to have to be on top of it every single game.
“And, that will continue to be the challenge. Just making sure every single night he’s at his best or as close to his best as possible.
Work in progess
None of the Red Wings are going to say the wins are secondary. Highly competitive people engaged for long hours in their sport believe victory is the fruit of their best efforts. Winning also makes all the required work easier.
But, for the Wings, the importance of victories in a season of rebuilding is increasingly weighed with other criteria.
When Blashill talked about another good effort against one of the best teams in the NHL, he cited two mistakes, the turnover in the neutral zone and the over-pursuit while back-checking, that gave the Capitals ample opportunity on two of their goals.
And then, he talked mostly about good signs of development.
“There were positives in the game,” he said. “It’s frustrating because it’s another game that we certainly could have won. We had every opportunity to win the game. That’s a frustration, that you don’t finish the game.
“I thought (Filip) Hronek was great. I thought (Dennis) Cholowski was great. Larkin had a real nice assist; Hronek a really nice play. Mantha scores.
“I thought our hound was really good in the second period. I thought we were on them. I thought we pressured, the way we have to play to be successful.”
Canadiens at Red Wings
Faceoff: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit.
TV/radio: FSD/97.1 FM
Outlook: Entering play against the Wild on Monday, the Canadiens ranked 12th with 3.07 goals a game and 23rd with 3.14 goals against. Max Domi leads Montreal in scoring (14-24-38), followed by Jonathan Drouin (13-20-33) and the former Wings’ player Tomas Tatar (14-17-31).