Niyo: Michael Rasmussen is winning battles in breakout season with Red Wings

Detroit News

Detroit — The surest sign you’re starting to carve out a niche for yourself as an NHL player is when your teammates start dropping your name.

Not so much to the media, either, but rather to the coaches.

And so it is for the Red Wings’ Michael Rasmussen these days, midway through what looks to be a breakout season for the hulking 23-year-old forward and once-maligned former first-round pick.

“You know a winger is good when every center starts to come hinting that they would like to play with him,” head coach Derek Lalonde chuckled Tuesday night, after Rasmussen’s play helped the Wings escape with a 3-2 overtime win over San Jose at Little Caesars Arena. “Or if I’m having a talk with a player about their current game, and they’re like, ‘Well, when I was with Ras …’, that’s certainly a good sign, too.”

Tuesday night, it sure was a welcome sight for veteran center Andrew Copp, who was reunited with the big kid they call “Moose” after a scoreless first period against the Sharks.

Lalonde had started the night with Rasmussen playing on the top line with Dylan Larkin and Lucas Raymond. But with Raymond briefly missing due to injury to start the second period, those forward lines were quickly shuffled again.

And late in that middle frame, it was Rasmussen who scored an unassisted goal to give the Wings a 2-1 lead, bouncing back off the ice after taking an awkward hit entering the zone and then eventually finding himself alone with the puck in the slot, where he fired a wrist shot past goalie James Reimer to bring the LCA crowd to its feet.

The Wings would give that lead right back at the end of the period, as an ill-advised pass in their own zone led to an endless 2 ½-minute shift for defensemen Moritz Seider and Jake Walman and, ultimately, a Logan Couture goal with 6.7 seconds left on the clock.

‘We gotta find a way here’

Such is life for Lalonde and this team, which has made halting progress as a group this season. They’re better defensively on the whole, and particularly so this past week in impressive outings against Las Vegas and Philadelphia. But they’re still prone to lapses that aren’t easily overcome by a team that still lacks elite scoring talent up front.

“That game ended up being a lot more complicated than it needed to,” Copp said, echoing the brief message Lalonde delivered to his players behind closed doors after 40 minutes.

The Sharks, who own the NHL’s fifth-worst record, had lost five of their last six, and were playing their third game in four days on a grueling road swing leading into the All-Star break. So for the Wings, who are still ostensibly in the playoff picture in a top-heavy Eastern Conference, these were two points they absolutely had to have.

“(Lalonde) kind of left it up to us,” Rasmussen said of the second-period speech was short, if not sweet. “He just said, you know, ‘We gotta find a way here.’”

And they would, in the end, though for Rasmussen it meant playing through some pain after taking a hard shot to the ribs on his final shift of the second period.

“He was nicked up,” Lalonde said. “You could tell he wasn’t 100%.”

Even after a much better effort from the Wings in the third period, the game was still tied at the end of regulation. But it wouldn’t stay that way for long in overtime.

Larkin nearly scored on the opening 3-on-3 shift with a quick drive to the net that had the Sharks — and Reimer — flustered. But then it was Copp’s turn with Rasmussen, and it didn’t even matter that Copp lost the offensive-zone faceoff. Because his tag-team partner jumped on the loose puck and immediately was in Reimer’s face, starting a flurry in the crease that ended with Copp slamming the puck into an open net just 25 seconds into OT.

“We just won a battle and were hard in the net front and one went in,” Rasmussen shrugged.

Seated next to him at the postgame podium, Copp quickly corrected that play-by-play.

“Well, Ras said we won a battle,” he smiled. “But he won a battle. … I mean, he did all the work.”

And that’s the bottom line here. Not just in this win, but also in the steady grind that has helped Rasmussen reach this newly-elevated stature in the Wings’ lineup.

Earning confidence

A top-10 pick in the 2017 draft, the British Columbia native struggled to live up to that billing early in his career. But after a strong finish to last season, when Rasmussen scored a dozen goals over his last 50 games — and six in the final 15 games in April — he already is on the verge of topping last season’s point total with 22 points in 44 games thus far.

And for a guy who appeared ticketed for a role as a third- or fourth-line winger as an NHLer not long ago, it’s remarkable how far he’s come over the last 12 months.

“I’ve learned to earn my confidence with hard work and just playing the right way and trying to be a good teammate,” Rasmussen said. “So I think if I just stick to those things and do my best every day, my confidence will be where it should be.”

As for the rest, that’s up to the coaches. Rasmussen spent some time moonlighting on the first line earlier this winter, in part to help handle faceoff duties for Larkin as he dealt with a hand injury. And while Lalonde is cautious to make any grand proclamations about his future fit here, there and everywhere, the shift from center to the wing for the 6-foot-6, 215-pound presence sure feels promising. And productive, which is why he started Tuesday’s game flanking Larkin again.

“Because every line he’s been with he drives,” Lalonde said. “He’s been awesome this year. Obviously, you see the way I use him in a lot of situations.  … We’re still raw in his development.  But I just think (playing on) the wing frees up what he is. He hunts pucks, he wins battles, he simplifies his game.”

And on a night where things once again got “complicated” for the Wings, who now will hit the road for back-to-back games against Montreal and the New York Islanders before the break, Lalonde couldn’t help but give Rasmussen his due.

“I rarely single out a guy for an effort,” the coach said. “Especially the way we’re built, it literally feels like every time we win it’s a complete team effort. But Ras tonight … He forechecked, he finished. Even the overtime goal, he jumps a San Jose faceoff win and ends up getting three jams on it before it ends up on Copp’s stick for the open-netter. So what an effort by him. Good for him.”

And for his teammates.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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