DETROIT – Anthony Mantha finished last season with six goals in the final four games.
He is starting this new season with five goals in just two games. He scored four goals on Sunday night against the Dallas Stars, helping vault the Red Wings to a 4-3 win.
Detroit is 2-0 to start the season, and that's largely thanks to Mantha and his linemates' offensive prowess. With Dylan Larkin at center and Tyler Bertuzzi on the other wing, this Red Wings top line is poised to give the rest of the league some trouble.
Bertuzzi has two goals and three assists through the first two games while Larkin has a goal and three assists. The trio is averaging about 21 minutes a game. They are besting teams through the neutral zone, tracking back hard to their own zone, forechecking aggressively to score timely goals, beating defenders one-on-one and just plain out-skating the opposition. It's what every coach dreams about: Your best players playing their best and setting the tone for how they game plays out.
Mantha hitting stride
Mantha, 25, was hampered by a hand injury -- something no goal scorer wants to have -- early last season. He was just hitting his stride with nine goals in 27 games when the injury put him out of commission in December. He returned to the lineup to muster a 25-goal season in just 67 games. It's an impressive achievement for someone who had to deal with a hand injury mid-season.
The former 1st-round draft pick in 2013 was touted as a big, strong forward who was lighting up the Quebec junior league. He scored 57 goals in 57 games in 2013-14 for Val d'Or Foreurs. The Red Wings grabbed Mantha at 20th overall in 2013, and were delighted to see his progress that year.
But turning pro meant Mantha would have to play against men. The transition to the big league took some time. He spent a couple seasons in the AHL, learning to score for the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Now he's good for at least 20 goals a year in the NHL thanks to his quick release and knack for finding the open space in the offensive zone. But he's taking it to a new level this season.
When a 6-foot-5, 225-pound winger hits top speed with the puck and drives right to the net, not many defenseman will be able to shut him down completely. That's exactly what Mantha did on one of his four goals against Dallas. He made Stars defenseman Esa Lindell look like he was standing still.
By the time Mantha got to the net he was left with a quick tuck past the goalie to tie the game. It was the definition of a power move, and something that will have teams backing up when they see Mantha entering the zone.
This is the kind of play that can change the way other teams prepare for the Red Wings. If a big man like Mantha is going to blow by defenders around the edge, teams will start shifting their focus away from Larkin and Bertuzzi. This is how a regular first line becomes a top line in the NHL.
30 goals at least
Mantha is a man playing against men now. He is playing with confidence and demanding respect. It helps to have a determined Larkin at center and the ever-aggressive Bertuzzi on the other wing, but alone Mantha has proved he is a force to reckon with.
A 30-goal season for Mantha is on the horizon. What that means for the Red Wings is uncertain, but at least there will be goals. The team has nine goals in two games already, and that's without Andreas Athanasiou (injured) in the lineup. You'll recall "AA" scored 30 last season.
When you are struggling to put together a defensive corps -- as the Red Wings very much are -- scoring goals can be your saving grace.