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Notes: Wings, Avalanche meet in down year for both

Young defensemen getting plenty of opportunity this year; Anthony Mantha returns

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji /

DENVER - For fans of the Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche, it's tough to look at the standings these days.

Both teams were dominant forces from 1996-2008, winning six Stanley Cups between them in that span and forging one of the best, most bitter rivalries in all of hockey.

Now the Wings are last in the Atlantic Division and second to last in the Eastern Conference with 63 points in 67 games while the Avalanche are last in the Central, in the Western Conference and in the league overall with just 41 points in 68 games.

Injuries have hurt both teams, with the Wings at 252 man-games lost and the Avalanche at 143 entering Wednesday night's game in Denver.

Although the Wings are quite a bit ahead of the Avalanche points-wise, they won't overlook them.

"We certainly shouldn't take anything for granted against anybody we play," Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "We've had a hard season. We've got lots to prove. We've gotta prove that this can be a good team on a night in, night out basis. I thought we played really good against Chicago. I thought we played fairly well for a period and three-quarters against the Rangers and then not good enough at the end of it. We're worried about us continuing to get better. We're worried about us playing the type of hockey you have to play to be successful."

Matt Duchene leads the Avalanche with 16 goals while Nathan MacKinnon leads with 44 points.

Tomas Tatar leads the Wings with 17 goals while captain Henrik Zetterberg leads with 55 points.

"I feel like we're in the same position," Tatar said. "There is no easy team in the NHL. I guess for them some stuff is going wrong, the same for us. Both teams better figure out what it is to improve. There's no way somebody is taking it easy tonight."

Improvement is what the Wings seek in the final 15 regular-season games.

"You want to win games but for us we have to get back to the right things," Niklas Kronwall said. "This is not just for this year, not only for next year but for the future. It's very important that these guys that are coming up now, that we all try together to do the right things out there, to establish good habits, work ethic and all those things because that's what's going to set the tone down the road."

YOUNG DEFENSEMEN GETTING A CHANCE: Nick Jensen, Xavier Ouellet and Robbie Russo are all getting a lot of opportunity this season to show that they belong in the NHL.

"It's extremely valuable, the experience they get," Kronwall said. "Of course it would have been, I think, even more valuable if we were obviously in the race. But in saying that, anytime you get a chance to play now every game, they're going to gain valuable experience and learn different situations out there, how to handle themselves, so I think they're going to benefit from this down the road as well."

Jensen, 26, made such a good case for himself that the Wings let Alexey Marchenko go on waivers.

Jensen said the way the coaching staff gradually increased his ice time from the 10-16 minute range to the 18-23 minute range has helped him develop.

"If I get scored on, you don't want to send a rookie defenseman out there to keep getting scored on again," Jensen said of the limited ice time earlier. "It can be kind of mentally straining on him. I've been kind of getting a lot of minutes lately and kind of playing against the second line guys, which are really good players. I think that's one of the biggest development improvements I've made is being able to play against those guys 'cause they're some of the best players in the NHL so to play against the best, you'll adjust and keep improving."

Russo has played in just four games so far and has been paired with Xavier Ouellet, whom he played with in Grand Rapids.

"We were together all last year, so we're pretty good together, have some good chemistry," Russo said. "You're familiar with him. He's a good player, helps me out a ton. I think we have chemistry and that helps out."

Despite playing against the top players in the world, Russo has welcomed the challenge.

"He's always in the right position," Ouellet said. "Every time I get the puck, he's in a good position to get it and he wants the puck. He's someone that calls for it, wants it. He doesn't just stand there, hoping it goes somewhere else. So that's always good."

So far Blashill said Russo has adapted his game to the NHL fairly well.

"He's got good poise with the puck," Blashill said. "He's got poise under pressure. He doesn't throw the puck away. He's not afraid to take a hit to make a play. It's something we've talked to our D lots about. You have to be willing to take hits to make plays with the pressure everybody puts you under in the NHL today. He does a good job of that. I think he does a good job of finding the right option with the puck. He makes hard plays when he needs to but he also has enough poise to go tape-to-tape and allow our forwards to get moving up the ice."

DEFENSE PAIR CHANGES: While Blashill has left Ouellet and Russo together, he did switch the other two pairs.

Danny DeKeyser has been skating with Jensen while Kronwall has practiced with Mike Green.

"Just different chemistry, probably as much as anything," Blashill said. "I think at one point last year we had Kronner and Greener together and they didn't get to play lots together but I thought they were a good pair. Kronner and Danny early in the year were a very good pair until Kronner got hurt and they haven't been as good since together. So we're hoping by switching them up the chemistry helps us be a little more productive."

Jensen said he won't have any trouble making an adjustment to a new partner.

"I think I played with him a little bit when I just got in the league," Jensen said. "I've already played with him before. It's extremely easy. He's a great player. He can move his feet, he can move the puck, he can defend, he's big soI don't think it's going to take much adjustment for me. He's an easy player to adjust to."

MANTHA RETURNS: When Blashill sat Andreas Athanasiou on Jan. 4 at Anaheim, Athanasiou responded with a goal and two assists in his return against the Los Angeles Kings.

Anthony Mantha has missed the last two games as a healthy scratch but returns tonight in Denver, where he hopes to have a similar impact in his return.

"I think Mantha's been a real good player for us through lots of the year," Blashill said. "I think he's gotta make sure he does a great job skating. That's the No. 1 thing. When he skates he's a really, really good player. That's skating with the puck, that's skating without the puck. If he does that he'll do a good job for us."

Mantha has been practicing on a line with Frans Nielsen and Darren Helm.

Mantha is tied for third on the team in scoring with Tatar with 33 points in 50 games.

Mantha was also working as the net-front guy on the second power-play unit.

Throughout the season Mantha has worked both net-front and on the half-wall during the power play.

"I think Mantha's got the ability to do multiple things," Blashill said. "I think he's been a good net-front guy at times but he's got to make sure he's willing to stand in front of the goalie's eyes all the time. He's been a good half-wall guy really I'd say on the weak side of the ice where it's run off the other side and he puts himself in position to shoot. But we need somebody to run the thing, too. That's kind of what we're looking at now. Who's going to run it, who's going to be the shooters and who's going to be the net-front guy? (Riley) Sheahan, Helmer, they'll get their opportunities as well."

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