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Notes: Mantha and Athanasiou set to return versus Montreal

Red Wings focused on taking small step forward after victory

by Arthur J. Regner @ArthurJRegner / DetroitRedWings.com

DETROIT -- If it were up to Anthony Mantha, he'd be in Saturday's Red Wings lineup against his hometown Montreal Canadiens.

But the final nod of approval belongs to Wings general manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Jeff Blashill.

"I just want to chat with Steve. I haven't had a chance to yet. We just want to make sure we're putting him in the right position, but he certainly has tested it (knee) and feels good about it," Blashill told reporters after Friday's practice at the BELFOR Training Center. "I anticipate that he'll play but until I chat with Steve I just want to make sure."

Mantha has missed the Wings' last eight games since he injured his knee on Nov. 23 in Detroit's 5-1 loss at New Jersey.

Before the injury, the 6-foot-5, 234-pound right wing was leading the Red Wings in scoring (12-11-23) and his 23 total points still ranks second on the team. Tyler Bertuzzi leads Detroit in scoring with 25 points (10-15-25).

"I talked to Blash after the end of today's practice and he asked me how it went and obviously everything went well." Mantha said after Friday's practice, his first full practice with the Red Wings. "So he's going to talk to the doctors I think right now and talk to Stevie (Yzerman) and make a decision either today or tomorrow morning.

"I kind of got clearance from the docs yesterday, but the coach and Stevie want to make a decision together."

It's been tough for Mantha to sit out, especially during the Wings' winless streak.

"It's crazy, I mean, it's hard when you play and it's hard when you don't play," Mantha said. "Just to see the guys in that mood day in and day out, it's not easy being able to do nothing, so I tried to stay positive. The win yesterday feels good, hopefully we can get a streak going for us."

The only apprehension about whether Mantha plays stems from the fact the Wings are playing back-to-back games, Saturday in Montreal and Sunday in Detroit when they host the Los Angeles Kings at Little Caesars Arena.

"You don't love, necessarily, putting him in back to back, but we've had so many guys out you just love the fact he wants to play," Blashill said. "Obviously, it's Montreal. I get it. I would deal with Sunday on Sunday. If we decide it's the best thing for him to play tomorrow then we'll play and see what happens. If he's sore, we'll be precautionary."

Mantha admits the Montreal date was the game he was shooting for to make his return to the Detroit lineup.

"I want to play, I'm here to play and it makes it even more special if it is Montreal," Mantha said. "As soon as (the doctors) told me it was somewhere between three and six weeks (for the knee to heal), for me it'll be three weeks on the date in Montreal, so it's been my target since day one."

As fired up as he is to play against the team he rooted for as a child, Mantha was adamant he's healthy and wouldn't play if he didn't feel he was ready to go.

"I wouldn't be saying I was ready to go if I wasn't," Mantha said. "It's still earlyish in the season and I can risk it. I feel perfectly fine, the results are good and I did off-ice testing yesterday (Thursday) and everything was good so I don't see a reason why I wouldn't be in except we're starting two-in-two (games) these next two days."

If Mantha does return, it gives Blashill options with his lines, but he was cautious about expecting Mantha to pick up where he left off before his injury.

"With him out it's been a hard thing, but it's given some other guys an opportunity to come in here and do a good job and I think (Filip) Zadina had a good game last game, Fabbs (Robby Fabbri) obviously had some real good moments of offense," Blashill said. "So it just gives us more depth and more firepower for sure and gives us more options. Coming off three weeks off is not easy, so I don't expect … I want to temper expectations with Anthony, but he looks really good out there. He's worked hard and put himself in position to be successful and we all know he's a real talented offensive player."

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: Carley Johnston was in the locker room this afternoon to talk last night's 5-2 win and get a status update from Anthony Mantha. pic.twitter.com/8PY5mk5ynm

Another highly skilled offensive player who would also be a welcome addition to the Wings lineup is Andreas Athanasiou.

Athanasiou (5-10-15) has been slowed by injuries this season but has only missed four games.

He was injured in the third period on Sunday versus the Penguins and is listed as day-to-day.

After practice, Athanasiou told reporters in passing that he thinks he'll play Saturday, but he'll know more after tomorrow's morning skate.

Blashill sounded confident Athanasiou would play against the Canadiens, telling the press corps, "I anticipate Double-A being ready."

Dylan Larkin and defenseman Patrik Nemeth didn't practice on Friday due to illness, but they are expected to be in Detroit's lineup on Saturday.

Jonathan Ericsson is not expected to play. However, Blashill indicated Ericsson wants to push himself and try to play, so Blashill left his status a little open-ended.

RED WINGS SEEK SMALL IMPROVEMENTS: Blashill has always maintained a team should strive to take small steps forward every day to become better.

He believes there isn't one magic moment that turns a team around.

Instead, if you improve a little each day, you'll eventually be significantly better and develop the tools to consistently win more than you lose.

With the Wings snapping their 12-game winless streak with Thursday's 5-2 victory over the Winnipeg Jets, Blashill was asked what small steps or improvements he hopes to see the Wings take now that they've won a game.

"We kind of reset ourselves going into those four days of practice that we had off. We really tried to focus on being better defensively. You can't give up five goals a night and expect to win," Blashill said. "We're a team that's been challenged to score, so what little steps can we keep taking here?

"One, just continue to limit chances. When I see a game where you give up nine chances, that's a really good game. If you're in that 14 range, it's OK. If you give up 19-20, it's hard to win. So, let's keep limiting those chances.

"I think both the power play and penalty kill are getting better. We did a quick up in the neutral zone yesterday and that's something we worked on so we don't have to go back and get a full breakout, and we end up scoring on it. And then finding ways to win games. Confidence matters, so finding ways to win games would be another step."

Alternate captain Justin Abdelkader understands where Blashill is coming from and thinks making small daily improvements is a day-to-day mindset and at times tuning out the standings.

"Sometimes you can get wrapped up in wins and losses but I think that obviously taking it a game at a time, doing things the right way," Abdelkader said. "I think we came out and played with a lot of energy and emotion last night. We must continue that. So hopefully we can grab some confidence as a group there and we're going to build.

"You don't focus on the standings. Too much focus on the next day at hand here. Obviously we had a really tough stretch. Hopefully this can be something we can build on, put together some wins here. "I think we all believe in this group and have a group that can get it done and a group that has come to work each and every day. Not looking at wins and losses, guys have tried to stay positive and most importantly come to work."

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: 𝐍𝐄𝐗𝐓 𝐒𝐓𝐎𝐏:𝓜𝓸𝓷𝓽𝓻𝓮𝓪𝓵 ������ pic.twitter.com/k6zwHQGhHx

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