Octopi Hockeytown: Vanek’s Hot Start Pacing Wings

After consecutive losses to start the season, the 2016-17 Detroit Red Wings responded with a bang in the second week of the young NHL season. Consecutive losses to Tampa Bay and Florida to start the season had many people worried about the defense and talent level of this year’s team.

Some of the criticism was justified, as both losses were filled with mistakes from a young back line. That said, the way the Wings have played since their loss to the Panthers on Oct. 15 has put them right back near the top of most power rankings.

Part of this is likely due to the revitalized play of Thomas Vanek. Picked up in the offseason along with 32-year-old Frans Nielsen, the 33-year-old Vanek seemed like the token Ken Holland veteran signing: a good move, if it was made five years ago. Daniel Alfredsson, Stephen Weiss and even Todd Bertuzzi to a degree have all been classic examples of moves that Holland has brought in with the right intention, but the way it never seems to pan out often makes me want to make me tear my hair out year after year.

So for now, as Vanek leads the team with four goals and eight points through seven games (tied for the team lead with Gustav Nyquist), I’ll happily eat my words here. Coming off a year with Minnesota where he put up an 18-goal, 41-point season, he’s had something to prove in 2016, and so far, he’s exceeding expectations.

Dylan Larkin, Enforcer

The rookie sensation a year ago has looked to avoid a sophomore slump this season, and a two-goal game against Carolina on Tuesday seems to be a good start, at the very least. While his grandmother may have owed him ten dollars Tuesday night, what she might have missed last Friday night was a different side of Larkin’s playstyle.

After being caught up high stick from Nashville’s Yannick Weber’s, Larkin didn’t respond too kindly to the defenseman’s pushing and shoving, drawing him into the first fight of Larkin’s career.

What surprised me even more than the fight itself. is that he won the fight. The 20-year-old was able to get a couple of solid right hands in before wrestling a much larger Weber to the ground. I’m not too sure about his enforcer role going forward, but it’s nice to see that teams won’t be able to push him off his game easily.

Comebacks Early in the Season Reveal Character

That Nashville game on Oct. 21 was also a pretty solid test of Detroit’s mental toughness, as the Wings fell behind through two second period goals scored 18 seconds apart. From there, the Wings notched a game-tying goal late in the second period from Drew Miller before Tomas Tatar and Nyquist gave the Wings a two-goal lead with eight and a half minutes left in the third period.

A late Nashville goal and an empty netter gave the Wings a 5-3 win over a Nashville team that was considered a Stanley Cup contender thanks to their acquisition of P.K. Subban from the Montreal Canadiens.

Oct. 19 was another example of the Wings’ mental fortitude thanks to a come-from-behind victory in Madison Square Garden. The Rangers had scored first, late in the first period, but goals from Vanek and Miller completed the comeback for the Wings. Obviously, coach Jeff Blashill and the rest of the staff would prefer to get ahead early and stay in front, but I’m more of the opinion that the only numbers that matter are the ones at the end of the game: the two numbers on the scoreboard. Right now, the Wings are winning there in tight games.

Defense and Goaltending is the Key

It’s tough to outscore your opponents 19-7 over a five game stretch without a little bit of improved defending. Jimmy Howard was the player of the game against San Jose on Saturday, shutting out the Stanley Cup finalists from this summer.

In his second season with the Wings, defenseman Mike Green has exploded onto the scene. Through seven games, the former Washington Capital has three goals, all of which came from his hat trick against the Ottawa Senators back on Oct. 17. Green’s impressive productivity to start this season has allowed him to be included as one of the NHL’s three stars of the week along with Cam Talbot of the Edmonton Oilers and Artem Anisimov of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Adding newcomer Ryan Sproul into the mix has also been a good coaching move from Blashill, as Sproul picked up an assist against the Sharks. Giving up 10 goals in two games to Tampa and Florida had me worried about the defense without Niklas Kronwall on the backline. Detroit’s best defenseman is eligible to come off the injured reserve list, but is not quite ready for action yet.

Either way, Petr Mrazek and Howard have held down the fort defensively, though that will be tested in upcoming games.

Next Week’s Games

Thursday: @ St. Louis, 8 p.m. (TV: Fox Sports Detroit)

Saturday: vs. Boston, 7 p.m. (TV: Fox Sports Detroit)

Sunday: vs. Florida, 5 p.m. (TV: FS-D Plus)