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Notes: 4-1 Wings expect tough game from 4-1 Lightning

Mantha working to establish himself as elite NHL forward

by Dana Wakiji and Art Regner @Dwakiji and @ArthurJRegner /

DETROIT - It's time to renew the rivalry.

The 4-1 Red Wings welcome the 4-1 Tampa Bay Lightning to Little Caesars Arena tonight and expect to have their hands full, like always.

In the last seven regular-season games against the Lightning, the Wings are 0-6-1.

"First of all, they got a lot of talent," Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "They play a game that can put you on your heels, especially if you don't manage the puck. If you ignite their transition game, they're going to put you on your heels. They're a great rush team, they do a great job when they come over the blue line of making tons of plays. Their D are always up in the play. They gap you real tight, their D lots of times come forward at you, they create turnovers into transition again.

"One is certainly their transition game. Two would be in the O zone, they can really spread you out and create issues and they always seem to have a good net presence though as they spread you out. They just can put you on your heels if you're not careful. You got to do a good job of being above them and do a good job of managing the puck. Then you got to find a way to get one by the goalie. They've had good goaltending for a number of years."

Justin Abdelkader understands that the Wings will have to do a good job of managing the puck.

"They have a good combination of speed, skill, they always have good goaltending," Abdelkader said. "Obviously (Ben) Bishop's not there but (Andrei) Vasilevskiy's been a really good goalie for them, too. They're very well-coached, Coop (Jon Cooper) and his staff have done a good job. I think that they find ways to win, offensively they can score a lot of goals so you got to make sure that you're playing smart against those guys and not giving them more chances than they should be getting."

Vasilevskiy, who is expected to start, is 3-0-0 with a 1.75 goals-against average and .942 save percentage in three career games against Detroit.

The Lightning have four players with seven or more points.

Star forward Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn each have one goal and six assists and Brayden Point has three goals and five assists.

Wings killer Nikita Kucherov has five goals and three assists.

In 15 regular-season games against the Wings, he has seven goals and five assists.

"His deceptiveness is one of the best in the league, if not the best," Blashill said. "He finds ways to find quiet areas on the ice. He's an elite offensive thinker. He's always in the right spots and he's got a great stick to go along with that so he can shoot it and make plays. it's extremely challenging. Coop does a good job of getting him on the ice lots on different lines at different times. Lots of times with the 11 forwards, he sneaks Kucherov out with other lines so it makes for a matchup, not nightmare, but it makes for a tough matchup for sure.

"He's just somebody you're going to have to be aware of it. You got to contain him, you're not going to eliminate him by any chance but you're going to have to do the best you can to contain him. I would say him, like most offensive players, are probably at their worst when they're defending. Not that he's not a good defender, he is, but you got to make them defend. If he's got the puck all night, it'll be a long night."

Kucherov is not the only one, of course. Stamkos has eight goals and four assists in 16 regular-season games against the Wings. Victor Hedman has one goal and 12 assists in 17 games; Ondrej Palat has four goals and nine assists in 17 games; Killorn has five goals and five assists in 17 games; former Pittsburgh Penguin has eight goals and 10 assists in 32 games; Tyler Johnson has four goals and eight assists in 16 games.

MANTHA FINDING HIS GROOVE: Heading into this season, forward Anthony Mantha had set personal goals for himself, which he has been hesitant to reveal.

"I wanted to be on that opening night roster this year," Mantha said. "It was my first time, it was a great first night. I just want to be an impact player for this team for the rest of this season, that's what I'm showing right now."

Through Detroit's first five games, Mantha and captain Henrik Zetterberg are tied for second on the Wings with seven total points (Mike Green has eight) and along with Martin Frk and Zetterberg, Mantha leads the Wings in goals, with each player notching three.

Mantha has shown the ability to get his hard shot off quickly and on net, something that he's been working on.

"It's just quick reaction, you try and find the open spot as quick as you can," Mantha said. "You only have a half-second, maybe a second once you get the puck to make a play and for me right now is just to shoot the puck. "The more shots I put on, the more chances of scoring I'll get - that's obvious. I'm trying to go for maybe five shots per game, I mean it's pretty, realistic five shots or five attempts. At least a couple are going to get on net and if they block it, good for them, but I need to find that little extra shot."

It has been a difficult road for Mantha to establish himself as a top forward for the Wings. He broke his leg during the prospects tournament in 2014 and the transition to becoming more of a two-way player was not easy for the offensively gifted forward.

"He's gone through a huge process. There's no doubt he's a much better player today than he was, I think, when he first came in," said Blashill, who coached Mantha for two seasons in Grand Rapids. "That's just a credit to guys that they want to get better so they are willing to take coaching and they're very willing to get better. It's not always easy.

"I think the biggest thing with Mantha, the number one thing, is when he skates he's elite. He was skating great in Vegas, he was an elite, elite player that night. You could say, why don't you do it all the time, well, he's got 20-some years of habits of not doing it all the time.

"We're in the habit business and we're constantly trying to help him change those habits. He's really worked hard at himself that he makes sure that he moves his feet on a more consistent basis. All the little tricks on how to get pucks off, he's a great shooter. But he's also a great passer.

"That was one of the first things I noticed when we got him is he's way more than just a shooter. He's got a great mind offensively. He's just learning those little tricks of the trade of how to get the puck off in tight spaces."

Like Dylan Larkin, Mantha wants to be thought of an impact player, not as a youngster still learning the NHL game.

"It's a big key for this team (to contribute)," Mantha said. "He (Larkin) said, 'we don't want to be looked at as kids. He's doing a great job this year. I've tried to follow, we want to be impact players on this team. We want to be impact players on this team this year, not in four years."

Mantha is well on his way of establishing himself as top forward on the Wings. He realizes that moving his feet will give him the consistency he needs to be truly an elite player.

"Sometimes you just kind of glide through, that's what I wanted to take out of my game the last couple of years," Mantha said. "I've been doing a great job at it, so I just got to keep skating and giving my 100 percent out there."

So far, so good.            

WITKOWSKI PLAYS FORMER TEAM: Luke Witkowski was the Lightning's sixth-round pick, 160th overall, in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

Tonight Witkowski will face his former team.

"See some of those guys and play against them tonight will be a little different," Witkowski said. "I'm excited for the opportunity."

Witkowski will play on the fourth line with Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening.

LINEUPS: The lines were mixed up a little in Las Vegas and appear to remain that way.

Mantha-Henrik Zetterberg-Gustav Nyquist

Tomas Tatar-Dylan Larkin-Abdelkader

Martin Frk-Frans Nielsen-Darren Helm


Defense pairs:

Jonathan Ericsson-Trevor Daley

Niklas Kronwall-Mike Green

Xavier Ouellet-Nick Jensen

Jimmy Howard was in the starter's net during the morning skate.

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