Helene St. James Detroit Free Press
Published 12:18 AM EST Nov 10, 2018
As the Detroit Red Wings seek to regain competitiveness, two of their key building blocks are earning reputations as game-changers.
Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou pack a unique skill set because of their speed. They are delivering big plays for the Wings on a regular basis this season, scoring clutch goals and leading the charge for the 25-and-under core.
“Just by using their speed alone, it can create havoc for other teams and create opportunities for us,” Jimmy Howard said after Friday’s 3-2 overtime victory over the New York Rangers at Little Caesars Arena. The game saw the Wings trail 2-0 in the third period. Athanasiou scored the tying goal with 2:02 to play in regulation, and then fed Larkin for the winner.
“Both of them want to be that difference-maker type player, and you have to make big plays at big moments,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “I’ve said it lots — every night it seems like it’s a one-goal game. Outside of the two blowouts in Boston and Montreal, take away the empty net goals, I think they’ve all been one-goal games basically. So it comes down to who makes a play at a big moment.
“Both of them want those moments and they want to be on the ice and when they can do that, that’s a huge thing.”
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Larkin, 22, also scored the game-winning goal Tuesday against Vancouver.
“The points right now for the team are most important,” he said. “Those big goals are what hockey is all about and I’ve been pretty fortunate to be on the side of a couple good plays.”
Larkin is averaging around 21 minutes per game, the only forward on the team to top 20 minutes (Gustav Nyquist was next highest at 17:21). He plays in all situations, and plays with high expectations.
“He wants to be the guy that everyone is counting on in this room and be an impact player night in and night out,” Howard said. “I think he’s done that for the majority of most games for us – he’s probably been our best player.”
Entering Saturday’s game at Carolina, Larkin led the Wings with seven goals and 16 points in 16 games. He came into the season wanting to shoulder some of the responsibility in the aftermath of Henrik Zetterberg’s decision to retire, and has come through on a consistent basis. That’s not surprising given Larkin’s drive to be the best.
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“He wants that,” Blashill said. “It’s important to him. He wants to be a go-to guy, always has. He’s got the great inner drive. I think the biggest thing with Dylan is he recognizes that you can’t be a great player if you’re not a great two-way player. When he starts to get loose on the one end, we can have a quick meeting and it’s an easy fix because he understands that ultimately, you get your best offense from checking, and if you check great, you spend tons of time in the o-zone.
“I think he’s really taken steps — if you look at the course of the last number of six, seven games, he’s been real good.”
So has Athanasiou, 24, and right from training camp. The inconsistency that has marred his performance in the past (last season Athanasiou went 15 games without scoring a goal and contributing only four assists; another time, 13 games without a goal) hasn’t been a factor this season. His habits in practice have been good, and he’s on the ice in key moments. He stood at five goals and three assists after Friday (which was his first game back after being injured for four games).
“I think anytime I get more opportunity there’s a good chance I’m going to get more opportunities out there,” Athanasiou said. “It’s something I’m confident in, is that I know those chances are going to come, so it’s just playing hard when I get out there and capitalizing on those chances.
“It definitely feels good, especially when it’s a goal we need late in a game, that’s something that I really enjoy doing, is trying to get the boys back in.”
Athanasiou has trade value for the Wings, but he is veering into untouchable territory (where Larkin already is). The contract dispute that sullied the start of last season is growing ever distant. As much as Larkin is the central piece of the rebuild, Athanasiou’s play is cementing his value to the cause.
Contact Helene St. James: [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames.
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