By: Will Burchfield

Henrik Zetterberg quietly shook his head when asked about the continued success of Andreas Athanasiou.

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“I don’t know how many times I’m standing here talking to you guys after a game and I’ve been telling you he is good,” said the Red Wings’ captain. “It’s amazing what he does with the minutes he gets.”

On Tuesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers, Athanasiou scored his fourth goal of the season – later netting the shootout winner – in 14:51 of ice time, eighth among Wings’ forwards. He entered the game averaging 12:37 of ice time.

Finally, it appears, Athanasiou is starting to receive the playing time his production warrants.

“Now he gets a little more minutes and he keeps delivering,” Zetterberg added. “No one is really surprised in here and we’re glad we have him.”

Over his short NHL career, Athanasiou has been questioned for his consistency, his compete-level and his end-to-end play. But no one can dispute his offensive impact.

Since the start of last season, no NHL player has scored more goals per 60 minutes of five-on-five action than Athanasiou. Not even Alex Ovechkin – he ranks second. Let that sink in.

The stats tell the same story this year. Athanasiou is first among the Red Wings in goals (1.90) and primary points (2.38) per 60 minutes of five-on-five play. His speed and his puck skills make him a threat every moment he’s on the ice.

“If he gets the puck in the right area, with his speed, he’ll be dangerous for sure,” said Gustav Nyquist. “Him and Larks (Dylan Larkin) are kind of similar in that situation. (If) they get the puck at full speed you can’t really catch those guys.”

The only thing holding Athanasiou back is the cautious hand of his coach. Jeff Blashill has been reluctant to pull the reins off the fleet-footed 21-year-old, frequently playing him in a sheltered third-line role. Just last week, Blashill rebuked Athanasiou for his effort in the second half of Detroit’s overtime loss to the Flyers.

After Athanasiou’s performance on Tuesday, the coach was much more complimentary.

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“I thought he did a good job staying on it all night. I thought he was engaged all night, I thought he was winning puck battles all night. When he’s that, he’s a very very talented player. When he’s competing at that high level, this is what you get out of him. He’s an excellent player that can break a game open out of nothing.”

That was abundantly clear when Athanasiou tied the game at two midway through the third period. He received a pass at center ice, roared through the neutral zone, split two Flyers’ defenseman just inside the blue line and beat goalie Steve Mason with a quick move to his forehand.

A mere three seconds elapsed from the time Athanasiou received the puck to the moment it was in the back of the net.

“I was coming through the middle with speed. Dekeyser made a great pass to me, I saw a little bit of space between those two D and thought I could make it,” Athanasiou said. “Fortunately enough, I got through and made the move.”

“It was just a seam pass in the middle of the ice,” Blashill said, “and as soon as he had a step on the guy, you know he’s walking in.”

Later, in the shootout, Athanasiou burned Mason again. This time, he went to his backhand.

At the other end of the ice, Jimmy Howard felt Mason’s pain. The Wings’ goalie sees plenty of Athanasiou in practice.

“He’s shifty and he’s got good hands. He’s got a dangerous release. It’s quick, he can get the puck off and he can pick his areas,” Howard said. “It was good to see.”

Despite his continued production, Athanasiou resisted the idea that he feels any more secure in the Wings’ starting lineup.

“No, I mean, it’s such a tough team to crack. We have lot of good players here and in Grand Rapids that are ready to play, so I know every night and every day at practice I gotta be ready. And whenever I get my chances I have to bear down and make sure they go in,” he said.

That’s all Athanasiou has done since making his NHL debut in November of last season. In the process, he’s become the most efficient five-on-five goal scorer in the league. His ice-time still doesn’t reflect that, but it’s moving in the right direction.

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“He’s just gotta make sure his compete level is where it was tonight, (every) night,” Blashill said.