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Notes: Athanasiou looks to keep building the rest of the season

Speedy forward was teammates with Jets center Scheifele in juniors

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji / DetroitRedWings.com

WINNIPEG -- There's no question that Andreas Athanasiou is one of the Red Wings' most exciting players.

His combination of speed and skill provides some breathtaking moments on the ice, especially when he's bearing down on the opposing goaltender on a breakaway.

Athanasiou, 23, has matched his point total of 29 from last season in 12 fewer games this campaign.

The fast forward had 18 goals and 11 assists in 64 games last year and has 13 goals and 16 assists in 52 games this year.

"I think Andreas has improved his game from a year ago in a consistency perspective of winning puck battles and winning puck races and those types of things," Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "Any player that wants to go from being a good player to a great player has to show up every single night and compete like crazy. That's what all the great players in the league do. Certainly that's where with a guy like Andreas or any of our young players, that's where our growth will come from. Making sure it's an every shift, every game thing."

Blashill had promised Athanasiou a greater role with the team when he finally signed a new contract in late October.

"I think I'm just playing my game and I think a little bit more opportunity to produce a little more," Athanasiou said. "I think it just comes with that."

Athanasiou's ice time has varied from as low as 8:34 on Dec. 23 at Boston to as high as 21:41 on Dec. 31 against Pittsburgh.

The Wings have sometimes gone with 11 forwards and seven defensemen, which opened up a way for Athanasiou to center the fourth line and also play on the wing alongside another fast skater in Dylan Larkin.

"We've had some games where we've been together, obviously it's been a little spotty here and there, but when we play together it's been a lot of fun," Athanasiou said.

The two had formed a nice line with Tomas Tatar until Tatar was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights this past Monday, so now Tyler Bertuzzi has an opportunity with them.

"I have some experience playing with him in GR; me, him and Mo (Anthony Mantha) played together," Athanasiou said. "I like playing with Bert a lot, he's a fun player to play with. We go all the way back to Traverse City when we started to play together in the tournament, so he's a lot of fun, too."

Athanasiou is currently riding a three-game point streak in which he has two goals and an assist.

JETS ARE FLYING: The Winnipeg Jets are in the middle of an excellent season, sitting in second place in the Central Division with 83 points behind division-leading Nashville's 89.

The Jets are third behind the Golden Knights (87 points) in the Western Conference.

Winnipeg has also had a lot of success at home with the league's third-best home record at 23-7-2, behind Vegas' 24-6-2 and Minnesota's 22-5-6.

"They've obviously got a really good team, that's why their record is where it's at," Blashill said. "I thought even the game that we played them at home, I didn't think the score indicated the game. I thought it was a much closer game. I thought we played very well, but I thought it was a much closer game. Connor Hellebuyck's had a hell of a year. I had him at the world championships last year and he went to work this summer from what I understand and really put tons of work in. He's had a heck of a year.

"They have some big, fast forwards. I think it's probably the best combination of size and speed in the league. And tons of depth up front. And then a real good D corps. It's certainly a great challenge, but I've said lots, when we work and compete we'll take on anybody."

Hellebuyck, a Commerce, Mich. native, is 32-10-8 with a 2.39 goals-against average and .922 save percentage. The Jets said he will start in goal.

Jets captain Blake Wheeler has 18 goals among 73 points and has a nine-game point streak with 4-11-15 in that span.

Sniper Patrik Laine leads the team in goals with 31 among his 53 points, second to Wheeler.

Then the team added center Pail Stastny in a trade with the St. Louis Blues this past Monday.

"He's a great centerman, plays an all-around game," defenseman Mike Green said. "He's got sort of that deep game within himself. I think brings a lot of depth to the lineup."

The Wings did manage to beat the Jets, 5-1, at Little Caesars Arena on Dec. 5.

Gustav Nyquist wouldn't mind scoring two more goals against the Jets like he did that night.

"That'd be nice, for sure, but the biggest thing obviously is we need wins now," Nyquist said. "We're quite a few points behind but we still believe in us and our team in here so we need wins."

The Wings know that in order to give themselves the best chance of winning, they can't come out flat.

"I think it's getting off to a good start," Green said. "If we can score first and kind of take the wind out of their sail, play our game, play above and do the right things, and make it hard for them. Big game."

Athanasiou concurred.

"They're definitely a hard-working team, especially in their own building," Athanasiou said. "Their crowd gets into it, they build a lot of momentum. I think holding them off for those first five minutes and sticking to our game plan, sticking with it for a full 60."

COLTS TEAMMATES: Athanasiou knows one of the Jets from their junior hockey days with the Barrie Colts.

Mark Scheifele and Athanasiou played together during the 2012-13 season, sometimes on the same line.

"He's unbelievable," Athanasiou said. "He's really good. It's crazy. He's a lot of fun to play with in juniors, definitely one of the best players in juniors across Canada. He was a lot of fun to watch and play with, too."

Scheifele, 24, is just one year older than Athanasiou.

He has 21 goals and 30 assists in just 47 games as he missed 16 games with an upper-body injury.

"He's just so good," Athanasiou said. "You can see it. He's doing so well here, last couple years he's been doing so well. Ever since he's been in the league he produces, he's a hard-working guy with a ton of skill. A really good player."

That season in Barrie, Scheifele was second on the Colts in scoring with 79 points (team-leading 39 goals) in 45 games while Athanasiou was fourth with 67 points (29 goals) in 66 games.

GREEN READY, BUT TEAM MIGHT MISS SOMEONE: Captain Henrik Zetterberg, who took Thursday as a maintenance day, skated in the team's optional skate Friday morning.

Also skating was Green, who is expected to return after missing seven games with a neck injury.

But Blashill indicated there might be one player who can't go against the Jets.

"Might have a little illness issue so not everyone's necessarily available," Blashill said.

Jimmy Howard said he was starting in net.

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