Wojo: Mantha mania sparks Red Wings' quick start
Detroit — It was a blast from the top of the circle, fired by a guy on fire all night, and it ignited the crowd like we haven’t seen in a while. The Red Wings insist they can surprise people this season, and if so, this was a stirring first act.
Anthony Mantha’s goal with 53 seconds left was his fourth of the game, and it powered the Wings past Dallas 4-3 in the home opener Sunday night. For Mantha, the spectacular show was a product of patience, a touted scorer who took a while to find his shot and his confidence. The Wings, now 2-0 with their opening win in Nashville, hope it’s not the last early-season stunner.
Mantha recorded the team’s first natural hat trick — three straight uninterrupted goals — in 11 years, and now has five goals and two assists in two games. A few more hats hit the ice after his final tally, and the crowd at Little Caesars Arena thundered throughout the frantic closing minute.
“Why’s the scrum so big tonight?” Mantha asked with a smile, as reporters and cameras surrounded him.
You gotta admit, it’d be fun to see the scrums grow again, although no one is deluded on the first weekend in October. The Wings have missed the playoffs three straight years and are predicted to finish near the bottom again this season. Steve Yzerman’s arrival as GM stirred the masses, for sure, but his work will be done in the shadows, away from the lights, and it figures to be a long, tedious task.
In the meantime, there’s no rule in the rebuild handbook that says young players can’t accelerate timetables. Long-term patience is the plan but short-term impatience is natural. Wings players say they’re sick of being dissed, tired of hopes being iced before the first freeze. They say it to a fandom that would love to buy it, and apparently they’re not kidding.
“I surprised myself on this one,” Mantha said of the four-goal outburst. “We’ve said it over and over, we’ll surprise a lot of teams. My confidence has been there since last year, playing with Bert and Larks, and I can’t praise them enough. I think I just have a better mentality of putting pucks on net.”
Larks is Dylan Larkin and Bert is Tyler Bertuzzi, and they’ve been Mantha’s linemates for about a year. It’s not a coincidence all three have played their best hockey in that span.
But it didn’t come easily, just as it won’t come easily for the Wings. While Larkin is the likely future captain, Mantha, 25, is the towering symbol of potential, a 6-5 power forward with rare scoring, passing and skating skills. He has battled injuries and disappointment, and still scored 25 goals last season despite missing a month with a broken hand. He suffered the injury in a fight with Colorado’s Patrik Nemeth (now on the Wings), while defending Larkin.
Jeff Blashill, who also coached Mantha with Grand Rapids of the AHL, has long pushed him to become more of a force, to skate harder, to use his body and his shot more effectively. Everyone was waiting for something to click with Mantha, then Blashill finally tossed him on Larkin’s line and the confidence blossomed.
“The thing about Anthony is, he’s a good person who cares and wants to be a really good player,” Blashill said. “And I’ve never questioned that one time. He’s also a guy when he’s confident, he’s exponentially better and you’re seeing that right now. … When he moves his feet like that, he’s fast, he’s big, he’s got great hands, it’s a heckuva package. He’s got a great shot, and what he’s done and needs to continue to do is make that shot a weapon.”
Mantha’s physicality was evident on his second goal, a pure power rush to the net. That tied the game 2-2 in the second period, after a lethargic start. The Stars were a desperate team, now 0-3, but Mantha’s energy was the spark the Wings needed.
Again, to be clear, no one is scouting playoff scenarios, although after their 25-year run, you hope the Wings still remember the way. Yzerman knows the way, and is pushing ahead in a deliberate manner, not unlike the patient plan Ken Holland was executing. Yzerman did completely revamp the scouting department, but he didn’t appreciably alter the roster. And none of the past five first-round picks made the team, all starting in Grand Rapids.
“I just don’t think you can address every issue over one summer, you can’t even address it over one or two,” Yzerman said on Fox Sports Detroit during the game. “It takes time.
"It's Dylan’s fifth year from his draft, and Mantha’s sixth year, and now these guys are impact players in the NHL.”
The Wings have a few other potential impact players, but not nearly enough. When Andreas Athanasiou gets healthy, he joins Mantha, Larkin and Bertuzzi, as well as young defensemen Filip Hronek and Dennis Cholowski, in a solid core.
But someone from the core must emerge as a true difference-maker, and Mantha always has possessed tremendous scoring ability. He appears ready to show that and more, with Larkin carving the path.
“I love the guy, I think he’s a great teammate,” Larkin said. “When he’s hot, he can be one of the best in the world. He’s fun to play with when he’s feeling it. So you just feed him.”
Feeling it and feeding it, that sums up the first weekend of the Wings’ season. They’re still a long way from shocking anybody, but as early surprises go, this was about as entertaining as it gets.