By: Will Burchfield
Let’s start with the caveats.
It’s only been two full games. The competition hasn’t been stiff. And they’ve all shown flashes before.
But since joining forces on the same line, Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou have been a potent trio. They combined for one goal and Larkin added another in the Red Wings’ 5-3 win over the Coyotes on Tuesday night.
“They’re good friends, they hang out a lot, so it’s no surprise they have chemistry out there on the ice,” said Jimmy Howard, who kicked out 30 shots for his fourth victory of the season. “As a team we need everyone going every single night, so it’s great to see them get some goals for us.”
The veteran Howard smiled as he said this, perhaps knowing how badly these three urchins have wanted to play together. Jeff Blashill united them before Detroit’s game against Florida on Saturday ngiht, and the early returns have been promising.
Through two games, Larkin, Mantha, and Athanasiou have combined for three goals, four assists, 17 shots and a plus-eight rating. More importantly, they’re possession metrics back it up. Most importantly, the Red Wings are 2-0.
“Part of me putting them together is now they have to hold each other accountable and make sure they’re doing it right. They all three care, and I think they will,” said Blashill.
Midway through the second period on Tuesday night, just minutes after the Coyotes had cut the Wings’ lead to 2-1, the center Larkin swooped around the Phoenix net, stripped defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and quickly dished the puck to the Athanasiou in the high slot. The left winger Athanasiou waited out goalie Scott Wedgewood before slipping a pass to the right winger Anthony Mantha for an easy backdoor tap-in.
The goal was eerily similar to the one they scored on Saturday night versus the Panthers, and evidence, Blashill agreed, of what can make the line so effective.
“We talk about hounding the puck, and I thought it was a great hound of the puck by Larkin there. He created the turnover and then they have lots of skill to be able to score,” said Blashill. “It can he a high-end line, there’s no question about it.”
Mantha, whose goal was his fifth of the season, pointed to Larkin’s forecheck: “He’s so quick. Quick with his stick, quick at turning around and attacking, and he found Double-A in the slot there.”
Larkin, whose assist was his tenth of the season, pointed to Athanasiou’s pass: “It was a great play by Double-A to find Mo back door. We all have a lot of speed and a lot of skill, and we try and find each other.”
(Of stripping Ekman-Larsson, something very few players do, Larkin grinned and said, “I don’t think he saw me. Kind of by his reaction, I really don’t think he did. I’m lucky.”)
When Athanasiou received the puck from Larkin, he had a clear opportunity to shoot. Most players probably would have. But Mantha, who had his stick on the ice, said he knew Athansasiou was going to pass.
“I just tried to push it in. I think I almost missed the net there, but a goal’s a goal and it’s a great play by him,” Mantha said.
Things won’t always go this smoothly for the under-24 trio. Even on Tuesday night, there were times when they got caught up ice and left their defensemen vulnerable. They’re still learning, all three of them, to move with the rhythms of the game.
“It’s going to be a process with that group. There were shifts where I thought they looked absolutely outstanding, and I think they would be the first to tell you there were shifts where they were too loose and gave up outnumbered rushes against. It’s just a matter of continuing to learn that they will not need to cheat one bit to produce offense. In fact, it usually works the other way,” said Blashill.
What most impressed Blashill on Tuesday night wasn’t necessarily the goal they scored in the second period, but the way Larkin, 21, Mantha, 23, and Athanasiou, 23, responded after a bad shift in the third.
“After they had what I thought was a little bit of a tough shift and a little bit of a tough change, we put them back out there and they had a really, really good shift,” Blashill said.
Blashill and GM Ken Holland talk often about the importance of young players building up stock. The same goes for a young line. For all the talent between Larkin, Mantha, and Athanasiou, it’s responsibility that will earn them the trust of the coaching staff. It’s reliability that will give them staying power.
“We started strong, we were skating all three of us, and we were winning our battles,” said Mantha. That’s the key, and we’ll try to do the same thing next game.”
And, they hope, the one after that.