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Stopping Ovechkin

by Dana Wakiji / Detroit Red Wings
Evgeny Kuznetsov (92) tries to get around the Red Wings net with rookie Andreas Athanasiou giving chase last Tuesday. Athanasiou scored the lone goal in the game. Athanasiou does one thing very differently from most players. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Detroit Red Wings)

DETROIT -- Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill has a good idea of how Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy felt Tuesday night.

Van Gundy was given the difficult task of trying to find ways for his team to stop Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James.

For the second time in eight days, Blashill has to help his team find ways to stop Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin.

"I should call Stan and get some tips on that for sure," Blashill said after Wednesday's morning skate. "You know, again, elite players create their own offense. Elite players are elite in this league, it’s so hard to create in this league that really, only the best are able to get a lot of chances because they are able to create it themselves."

James had 30 points but needed 21 shots to reach that mark.

In his last game against the Wings, Ovechkin had 15 shots but was not able to beat goaltender Petr Mrazek, the same player who will be in net tonight.

"It’s not very often Ovi gets 15 shots and doesn’t score," Wings defenseman and former Capital Mike Green said.

After that last game, Blashill said they would have to come up with a different plan for Ovechkin.

"I can’t reveal that plan though," Blashill said Wednesday. "That’s a secret."

It's actually not a secret but it falls into the much-easier-said-than-done category.

"What you can’t do is give anything easy to him," Blashill said. "So you’ve got to make sure when he’s on the ice you’re above him and tight to him. You’ve got to make sure in the D-zone that you’re not giving him any easy looks and not any easy rebounds, and on the penalty kill we’ve got to do a better job of, not necessarily limiting shots, but making those shots more contested and such."

Like James, Ovechkin is a huge guy, listed at 6-foot-3, 239 pounds, which creates even more problems.

Riley Sheahan is the biggest forward on the Wings, 6-foot-3 like Ovechkin, but giving up 17 pounds.

"I think just when you put his skills together, his shooting and his speed and how strong he is on the puck, I think it just makes it very hard to kind of get him away from the net and slow him down," Sheahan said. "When you can add all those things together, when you can skate up the ice so fast, it's hard to get in his way and he's very good at getting his shot off."

Said Green: "He just has such an incredible shot. You can put it right between his legs and he’s going to get it off pretty good."

It's not going to be easy for Mrazek to be perfect against Ovechkin again.

"You have to be big in the net and do the smallest thing I can do," Mrazek said. "Be ready and hope he’s going to hit you sometimes when you don’t see the puck."

Sheahan said the Wings have to stay out of the box so Ovechkin does not get that extra help and try to get in Ovechkin's lane when he does get the puck.

"We're going to have to be willing to block shots because that's one thing I think you can get to him is just kind of standing in his lane and not letting him get that shot off," Sheahan said.

Then there's the other factor to consider.

If the Wings pay too much attention to Ovechkin, that leaves more time and space for Ovechkin's talented teammates.

"It's very hard to stop obviously, he's a shooter but he can still make plays and find those open lanes to hit a guy so he can get a good shot off," Sheahan said. "So we're definitely going to have to be aware of guys like (Nicklas) Backstrom and (Evgeny) Kuznetsov. They've got a lot of skilled forwards up front."

Backstrom is second to Ovechkin on the Capitals with six goals to Ovechkin's eight. Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Jason Chimera each have five goals.

Ovechkin remains at 483 career goals, one shy of passing Sergei Fedorov for first place among Russian-born players.

"Nobody wants to let that goal in," Mrazek said. "I will do my best. He tried it three games ago and tonight he’s going to try again."

GREEN GETTING IN FLOW: It took a while after recovering from a shoulder injury, but Green is starting to feel like himself.

"It’s tough when you come to a new organization and then you get a minor setback but I’m starting to feel comfortable again and trying to elevate the game every day," Green said. "It’s been a pleasure so far being here and playing with these guys."

Green has three assists in his last two games.

"Obviously we’ve seen him practice everyday and you could tell how skilled he is, the stuff that he can do out there," Niklas Kronwall said. "And I think, too, I’ve got to play better to help him out. Together we can be a lot better than we have, but he’s got so much upside. I definitely think last game he was all over the place, making plays and doing the right things."

LARKIN CONTINUES TO IMPRESS: Dylan Larkin has five goals and seven assists in 18 games so far in his rookie campaign.

"He has been in a very good role and he has earned that opportunity," Blashill said. "He’s continuously been productive. I think on most nights he has a positive impact on the game, He has a really good skill set. He’s got a great inner drive."

Larkin is also among the league leaders in plus-minus, tied for third with the New York Rangers' Kevin Klein at plus-12. Chicago's Patrick Kane is plus-14 and the Rangers' Ryan McDonagh is plus-13.

"I think plus-minus is a weird stat, it’s a lot of luck and a lot of puck luck, playing with good players," Larkin said. "The goalies have been great. I think I’ve been out there for a lot of chances against. Whether it’s coming back harder all the time or stopping on pucks, those little things I need to work on to make me a more complete player."

After playing the early part of the season with captain Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader, Larkin is now with Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Tatar.

"You keep the puck and have a lot of possession when you play with him," Larkin said of Datsyuk. "He can find you even when you don’t think he’s going to be able to. You always have to be ready for the puck."

But playing with top players usually means going against the other team's top players.

"When you’re in those big-time roles your responsibility – you don’t treat somebody like that that a first-year, young kid, you treat them like a guy who’s in a real big role," Blashill said. "The biggest stuff would be making sure he comes back in D-zone and stopping, not giving up any unneeded chances. – great teams create their own chances – and then continuing to be productive like he’s been. But he’s got a great skill set and great motor – that’s what makes him really special."

As for Larkin, he is always looking to improve.

"I think I’ve had tons of chances," Larkin said. "There’s been some games where I’ve been skating around pretty fast, but am I getting in places or am I doing the right thing? I think that just comes from video and studying the game. There’s been tons of chances I’ve had that I haven’t buried and a few open nets. So if you look at stats and goals, I’d like more."

MAYBE HIS NICKNAME SHOULD BE 'SOCKS': Andreas Athanasiou has a lot of speed when he's on the ice.

What he does not have is a pair of socks.

"Actually when I was younger I would rotate. Sometimes I would wear socks, sometimes I wouldn’t," Athanasiou said. "I think ever since I started juniors I’ve been going barefoot. I’m not a big fan of socks. Even in my shoes now, too. I just feel uncomfortable. I just like being in my skates without socks. It’s something I’m so used to now."

Former player and current agent Bobby Orr also played without socks.

Orr is Athanasiou's agent but that's not why he plays without socks.

"It’s just something I felt comfortable with," Athanasiou said. "I feel like there’s a little bit less slippage in the skate."

Athanasiou, who has one goal and is plus-1 in five games, is still getting used to the NHL game.

"I think I’m still adjusting a little," Athanasiou said. "Obviously it’s a little bit different than the American League. It’s a lot of fun to be up here."

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