It was not that he had four breakaways, including one that drew a penalty shot in the third period and the penalty shot itself, as impressive as that was.
"I don't know how many breakaways he had today, probably the amount I had in all my career," said Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg, 37, a 15-year veteran never known for his speed.
No, the most significant thing was that coach Jeff Blashill double-shifted the player they call Double A, saying, "I think he's played more consistently hard. He's played the type of hockey he's got to play to be successful."
The highlights are great, but everyone knows Athanasiou is capable of highlights. He's fast. He's skilled. He's as dynamic and fun to watch as any player in the NHL when he shows what he can do.
Yes, any player in the NHL.
The question has been why he hasn't shown what he can do more often, and the key for the Red Wings in the long term is the development of players like Athanasiou, 23; center Dylan Larkin, 21; and forward Anthony Mantha, 23.
Depending on your perspective, Athanasiou hasn't been given enough opportunity, or he hasn't earned it. But Blashill is the one who controls the ice time, and he has been clear about what he wants from everyone.
"If you want to be a high-impact player in the League, you have to work extraordinarily hard every shift and compete extraordinarily hard every shift," Blashill said. "It's way different than 10 years ago. It's way different than 15 years ago. The League is way too tight to not do that and be successful."
Video: OTT@DET: Athanasiou scores six seconds into OT
Athanasiou played as little as 8:34 in a 3-1 loss at the Boston Bruins on Dec. 23. He played 12:36 in a 3-1 loss at the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 27.
But then Mantha missed two games with an injury, opening a spot on Larkin's wing and an opportunity for both Blashill and Athanasiou. Blashill didn't have to justify giving Athanasiou more ice time. Athanasiou could seize the chance to play with Larkin while free from the responsibilities of center, earning more ice time.
Larkin can come back deep defensively, and Athanasiou can take off offensively, accentuating each's strengths. At times, Larkin has been like a quarterback tossing deep passes to a speedy wide receiver.
"I just throw it now," Larkin said with a laugh.
"As a winger," Athanasiou said, "you can kind of push the D back and blow the zone -- I don't want to say blow the zone, but kind of force them back and get those high flips and get put in puck races."
Blashill said, "There's times where I've urged [Athanasiou] to skate without the puck into those open areas, and he hasn't as much. He's waited to get the puck. For whatever reason, he seems to really trust that Larkin's going to lay pucks into areas."
Athanasiou had a goal on eight shots in 20:59 of ice time in a 3-2 shootout win at home against the New York Rangers on Dec. 29. He had no goals and no shots in a 4-1 home win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 31, but he played 21:41, a season high. He had his two goals on seven shots in 19:38 against the Senators.
"You see him winning battles," Larkin said. "Not that he hasn't before, but he's engaged. On the bench he's into it. He's talking to myself. We're strategizing when we're on the bench, and that's how you build chemistry. You look for each other, and we talk about what we can do throughout the game to find each other, and a lot of it right now is finding him in open ice and letting him skate and coming up and trying to follow up for rebounds and second opportunities."
Winning battles. Engaged. Into it. If you're a Red Wings fan, that's what you want to hear.
So is this:
"Obviously [Athanasiou] was hot tonight," Blashill said when asked about starting him in overtime. "When he's really going, you feed him as much as you can. So it was a no-brainer for me to start him."
Video: OTT@DET: Athanasiou roofs backhand over Anderson
Athanasiou has to keep really going, and Blashill has to keep feeding him. The Red Wings host the Florida Panthers on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET; FS-D, FS-F, NHL.TV).
"I think like any young player, they have to learn how consistent you have to be to be successful in the National Hockey League," Blashill said. "I think that is one of the biggest lessons young guys have to learn. I don't care who you are. Larkin's had to learn it. [Athanasiou] has had to learn it. I hope that he comes Friday and plays the same way, and I think it's a continued step. The more games you build up …"
Blashill banged the table as he spoke.
"… where you're playing that same way and playing great hockey and playing engaged, the more you're taking steps toward being a great hockey player in this league."