No tanks: Athanasiou scores twice, Red Wings hold on to beat Rangers, 3-2

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Detroit Red Wings center Andreas Athanasiou (72) celebrates after scoring a goal during the second period.

With each victory, those odds of getting the first overall pick is getting slimmer for the Red Wings.

Playing a New York Rangers team that is perfecting “tanking” this late in the season, the Wings picked apart the Rangers in a 3-2 victory Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.

BOX SCORE: Red Wings 3, Rangers 2

Goaltender Jimmy Howard, as he usually does against the Rangers, was dominant while making 41 saves. Andreas Athanasiou had two Wings goals, including an empty-netter with 53 seconds left, and Frans Nielsen had the other goal.

It was the Wings’ second consecutive victory and moved them six points ahead of Ottawa, the NHL’s last place team, and four ahead of Los Angeles. The Wings moved to within one point (62) of New Jersey (63) for 28th overall in the league.

So, for many fans, the Wings are going in the wrong direction in the standings.

But fans can’t be disappointed with how the Wings have played these last two victories over the Islanders and Rangers.

Howard moved to 10-3-3 in his career against the Rangers, besting his longtime rival Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (27 saves).

Howard, 35, is expected to get a one-year contract extension from the Wings, maybe as early as this week. The Wings, who don’t have a prospect ready at the minor-league level, declined the chance to trade Howard at the deadline, and wanted to re-sign Howard, who wanted to stay.

For Athanasiou,the two goals gave him 28 for the season, moving him  past Dylan Larkin (27) for the team lead.

The Rangers have lost 12 of their last 13 games.

Here are some highlights from Tuesday's game:

Detroit's goals: Nielsen opened the scoring with his 10th goal. Brian Lashoff started the play in the defensive zone, and found Taro Hirose, playing in his first NHL game. Hirose got the puck quickly to Nielsen, who had a 2-on-1 with Thomas Vanek, but kept the puck, shielded it driving to the net, and snapped a shot past Lundqvist.

Athanasiou made it 2-0 at 4:30 of the second period. Michael Rasmusssen began the play, getting the puck to streaking Jacob de la Rose. On a 2-on-1 rush, de la Rose fed Athanasiou coming down the wing, who flicked the puck over Lundqvist for his 27th goal.

Howard vs. Lundqvist: Whenever these two goalies have matched up over the years, a goaltending clinic has been quick to follow. Tuesday’s night game was diminished by the fact both teams are far, far away from playoff contention but Howard certainly did his part to maintain the goaltending excellence. Howard stopped 41 shots, moving his record to 7-2-2 against Lundqvist in the last 11 meetings. Lundqvist stopped 27 shots, but didn’t turn away Nielsen and Athanasiou on odd-man rushes.

Hirose debut: Earlier in the day Hirose, from Michigan State, was named the Big Ten player of the year. Hours later, in his NHL debut, Hirose earned an assist on Nielsen’s goal giving the Wings an early lead. Hirose played 13:44, had the assist, but wasn't credited with a shot, and was even in the plus-minus category.

Close encounters: How close have the games been between the Wings and Rangers over the last several years? Including Tuesday's game the last six games — and 14 of the last 15 games — between the Wings and Rangers have been decided by one goal. Six of the last eight games have gone to either overtime or shootout.

Athanasiou rolling:  That’s six goals in the last seven games for Athanasiou, who appears to be getting increasingly comfortable playing center. Athanasiou’s speed again came into play on his goal, helping de la Rose create an odd-man rush and outracing Rangers defenders.  Athansiou had six shots in just under 20 minutes of ice time (19:41).

Smith at forward? Yes, your eyes weren’t fooling you. That was former Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith playing at forward for the Rangers, something Smith on several occasions with the Wings. Smith played 12:41, scored his third goal with 9 seconds left in the game, and had five shots on net.

New York’s goals: Ryan Strome cut the Wings lead to 2-1 at 14:46 of the third period. Strome, alone at the post, flipped a rebound over a sprawled Howard on a Rangers power play, Strome's 14th goal. It was only the second Rangers' power play goal in their last 33 opportunities. Smith scored on a rebound with 9 seconds left, cutting the lead to 3-2.

Ericsson, Daley out:  The Wings were without defensemen Trevor Daley (back) and Jonathan Ericsson (lower body), although both could return near the end of this five-game road trip. With those two out, Luke Witkowski and Lashoff remained in the Wings’ lineup on defense. Lashoff earned an assist on the Nielsen goal. The Wings also lost de la Rose late in the game due to illness.

Next: The Wings travel to St. Louis for a game Thursday against the Blues (8 p.m./FSD, 97.1 FM).

Twitter: @tkulfan