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Rookie pair gives Red Wings playoff lift

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings

Andreas Athanasiou scored the first playoff goal of his NHL career in the Red Wings' 2-0 win in Game 3 on Sunday. He had four shots on goal in the game. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Detroit Red Wings)

DETROIT – If not for a pair of first-time playoff performers, the Red Wings’ goal production would be down more than it actually is in their best-of-seven series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Andreas Athanasiou and Dylan Larkin each scored a goal in the first three games against the Lightning. Athanasiou’s second-period goal Sunday was the eventual game winner in Game 3, lifting Detroit to its first win in the postseason.

The Lightning still have a 2-1 series lead heading into Tuesday’s Game 4 at Joe Louis Arena.

“It’s pretty incredible actually,” Wings defenseman Mike Green said. “They’re very composed young men that have stepped in and played a significant role. Even with limited ice time, to contribute the way they have is pretty impressive. It’s imperative that they keep that up, though.”

After experiencing a less-than-stellar postseason debut, Larkin scored on his first playoff shot in last Friday’s 5-2 loss in Game 2 at Amalie Arena. The 19-year-old, who was the team’s leading goal scorer in the regular season, openly admitted that he wasn’t happy with his performance and even shared blame for allowing the Lightning’s first goal of the series.

“I don’t know that it was rough,” Blashill said, referring to Larkin’s first game. “He took some physical abuse but he’s not new to that this year. That’s been something that he’s had to deal with as a young player who’s got lots of accolades. But as I said after Game 1, he’s a tough kid. He’s a fierce, fierce competitor and I think in the end that’s gonna make him a great player in this league because of how fierce a competitor he is. So in these types of moments he’ll rise above.”

Larkin and Athanasiou are the first rookie tandem to score playoff goals for the Red Wings since Brendan Smith and Joakim Andersson did so during the 2013 postseason.

With a lack of goal scoring – Detroit has two goals in each game of the series – Blashill was asked if an increase in ice time was in order, particularly the 21-year-old Athanasiou, who could help spark the power play, which is 1-for-17 so far in the series.

“We've certainly looked at everything as we go through the decision process,” Blashill said. “Is there any ways that we can help ourselves do better in any area, including the power play? I would certainly give lots of credit to Tampa's penalty kill. I think they were one of the top penalty-killing units in the last two or three months down the stretch. I think they ended up seventh in the league. They do a really good job, so let's make sure they get lots of credit there.

“We have a guy we thought about inserting in (Teemu) Pulkkinen as well, he brings a real addition to a potential power play so those are all things we looked at. Double A, he spent some time on our power play last year when I had him in Grand Rapids, not tons of time. He did a good job. It's something we'll look at.”

Even in limited minutes, Athanasiou can be a difference maker, even when he’s not scoring, as he showed during Sunday’s win.

“I thought last night was by far his best game,” Blashill said. “He does two things with his speed. One, he backs the other team off, and two, he lifts the energy of the building. Even if the play doesn’t complete anything it does lift the energy of the building. So it was great.”

FIRST PLAYOFF WIN: The 27th head coach in Red Wings’ history, Blashill recorded his first Stanley Cup playoff win in Detroit’s 2-0 victory in Game 3 of its Eastern Conference quarterfinals series against Tampa Bay.

“Honest to God, I didn't even think about it till after the game,” Blashill said. “(Assistant coach) Pat Ferschweiler just said congrats on that, but until then I didn't think of it. I guess I don't look at it that way per se, just trying to do everything we can to try and win a hockey game."

Blashill's win also came against longtime friend, Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who said he could feel happy for his buddy but was less amused that was against him.

“It sucks,” he said, “but I’m happy for him.”

The 42-year-old Blashill is the 12th coach in club history to win a playoff game. With the Red Wings’ next win, he will pass Nick Polano who coached Detroit to a 1-6 postseason record in back-to-back Norris Division semifinal losses to St. Louis (1984) and Chicago (1985).

MADDENING SPEED: When Cooper was asked if watching his team’s speed minimized in Game 3 was maddening, the Lightning’s coach said, “We went through this last year. Go play back Games 1 through 7 last year and this is the exact same thing that’s happened this time. Sometimes you get open ice and you have to take advantage of it and most of the time you don’t have it. It’s the team that gets the most open ice that usually is the team that comes out on top. We had the most open ice in Games 1 and 2, and they had the most open ice in Game 3. That’s pretty much how it’s done.”

POWER OUTAGE: This hasn’t been the playoff series to see great offensive contributions from special teams – on either team. Through the first three games of the series, the Red Wings and Lightning are a combined 2-for-31 on the power play.

Detroit is 1-for-17 this series, and 1-for-22 dating back to the second period of Game 6 against the Lightning last April. Brad Richards has the Wings' lone power-play goal, which he scored during the third period of Game 2.

“Special teams have not really come into play in this series so far, which is a little surprising because I’m sure our series is leading the NHL in penalties,” Cooper said. “But as these games go on you need to score that power-play goal.”

The two teams have a combined 215 penalty minutes and nine 10-minute misconducts. That’s more than 38 percent of all 563 penalty minutes assessed in the eight first-round playoff series.

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