Detroit – This hasn’t been the season Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha envisioned.
You can bet Mantha was looking forward to a 30-goal season, reaching that milestone for the first time, and launching himself toward a new level in the NHL.
But he had a horrible start to this season, then injured his hand in a fight Dec. 2 – which kept Mantha out of 15 games just as he was turning his season around – severely denting any hopes for a breakthrough season.
On Saturday night, Mantha was able to put a positive spin on these dwindling days of the Wings’ season, scoring the tying and winning goals in a 3-2 overtime win over Vegas.
That gives Mantha 19 goals, with seven games remaining. While it’s very unlikely he’ll reach 30 goals, 20 is certainly attainable.
Mantha was asked if 20 goals is a satisfying plateau.
“No, it’s not,” Mantha told reporters after Saturday night’s game. “I’ve had ups and down this year, but I had to focus a little more on the downs and try to build off of that for next year – and try to be an even better player next year.”
Saturday’s two goals ended a six-game goal-scoring drought, and included a stretch in which Mantha had scored only one goal in 10 games.
Things hadn’t been going right, and it was compounded for Mantha just a minute before he scored when Vegas forward Reilly Smith intercepted a Mantha pass and raced to bury a shorthanded goal.
But Mantha, who had played one of his best games of late, didn’t let the turnover affect him.
“He was excellent, he was a big-time player,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “He had the unfortunate turnover on the power play but it was great – he comes right back and scores and then scores the overtime goal.”
Blashill talked with Mantha briefly Friday and whatever message was delivered, it definitely stuck.
“He was moving his feet right from the very first drop of the puck,” Blashill said. “He was on his game for sure. Him and I talked a little bit (Friday) and he did a really good job coming out and playing the right way.”
Of the five games on this Red Wings road trip, Vegas seemed the most unlikely stop that the Wings would pick up a victory.
The Golden Knights had won 10 of 11 games and appeared to be rounding into the form that took them to the Stanley Cup Finals last season.
But the Wings were the better team for most of the game.
“Our competition level was excellent, right from the get-go,” Blashill said. “It says a lot about our group. We’ve continued to compete even when we are out of it.”
Despite not being in the playoff picture, the Wings have maintained an impressive work ethic.
“We’ve talked about that, having pride in ourselves and making sure we work and build for a better future,” Blashill said. “To do that you have to show up every night and we did an excellent job (Saturday).”
In the race for the worst record and best draft lottery odds, Ottawa (whose pick actually goes to Colorado from a previous trade) is at rock bottom with 58 points. Los Angeles (62), the Wings (64) and New Jersey (65) follow, with two full weeks left in the schedule.
But judging from the Wings’ effort these past few weeks, and particularly after the Vegas victory, nobody on this roster is thinking about tanking.
“You see the smiles on our faces after this game and how happy and pumped we are about that,” defenseman Madison Bowey told reporters. “We’re a younger team and we’re building, and it’s just great to get these wins against these great teams in the league.
“It shows that one day we can be here and be playing in the top with the top teams.”
The Wings sent defenseman Libor Sulak (flu) back to Grand Rapids and recalled defenseman Dylan McIlrath from the Griffins. Sulak was promoted earlier in the week but wasn’t able to play because of his illness.
… Defenseman Jonathan Ericsson (lower body), who has missed the last five games, could be ready to go Monday in San Jose.
… That’s two trips into Vegas the last two seasons, and two victories for the Wings, who love the emotion and atmosphere in the Golden Knights’ rink.
“This is a great building,” Blashill said. “Honestly, probably the best atmosphere in the league.”
Said Bowey, who played one of his best games as Red Wing Saturday: “It’s one-of-a-kind. Just how loud it is and the emotions. Everything is going and it just takes a real good team to kind of slow down and communicate out there and work as one.”
Red Wings at Sharks
Faceoff: 10:30 p.m. Monday, SAP Center, San Jose
TV/radio: FSD/97.1 FM
Outlook: The Sharks (43-23-9) are battling to maintain home-ice advantage, but remain hopeful of winning the Pacific Division. … The Wings get to catch up with former teammate LW Gustav Nyquist, who has six points (three goals, three assists) in 12 games with the Sharks.