Blackhawks want Andreas Athanasiou to be smart when deciding whether to rush ahead

Athanasiou can create incredible plays with his speed and stickhandling. But Hawks coach Luke Richardson doesn’t want him risking turnovers in search of highlights.

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Andreas Athanasiou cuts on Avalanche defenseman Samuel Girard.

Andreas Athanasiou looks more dangerous with the Blackhawks than he has in years.

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

Andreas Athanasiou nearly scored another pivotal goal Tuesday for the Blackhawks.

With just over two minutes remaining and the Hawks trailing the Islanders 2-1, Athanasiou received a drop pass in the final seconds of a power play. He skated unchallenged through the neutral zone and across the blue line. He curled right and moved the puck to his right-hand (forehand) side on his backhand, thus using his body to protect it. 

He used his smooth skating to evade poke-check attempts from Islanders penalty-killers Zach Parise and Alex Romanov. He then activated his blazing speed to beat Romanov down the right wing, around the corner and to the net.

“I was coming in with speed, and I was just trying to get a shot,” Athanasiou said. “The ‘D’ kind of lunged forward, so I made a little adjustment to go around him.”

Islanders goalie Ilya Sorokin saved Athanasiou’s close-in chance, and the Hawks lost the game. So the play was quickly forgotten. That kept the recent attention on Athanasiou focused solely on his goal-of-the-year stunner Sunday against the Wild. 

The highlight from that goal, in which he embarrassed Matt Dumba with consecutive dekes before roofing a backhander over Marc-Andre Fleury, blew up on social media. Athanasiou said he “blacked out” in the moment but has been hearing from buddies about it the last few days.

Such spectacular efforts are becoming common for Athanasiou, who has now recorded 19 individual scoring chances at five-on-five through 10 games — tied with Patrick Kane for the team lead. 

Hawks coach Luke Richardson, however, actually liked Athanasiou’s near-goal Tuesday better than actual goal Sunday, although he won’t complain about the result.

He and Athanasiou have talked regularly about making smart decisions when deciding whether to attack the defense with possession or to play it safe with a dump-in — and when choosing the former option, whether to attack straight ahead or down the wing.

“We want him to realize, when he’s coming across the blue line, he doesn’t have to stickhandle through the defensemen’s feet and sticks every time,” Richardson said. “[He can] use his speed and go wide. Same as [Sam] Lafferty. That should be in their minds every shift. 

“And then when the defense makes a mistake and they’re a little too wide, a little too spread apart, that’s when you can attack the middle and use your speed and draw a penalty or get a breakaway.”

Because of Athanasiou’s world-class speed, he also has to process situations and make decisions more quickly than others because the gap between himself and opponents often closes in a blink.

He weighs “so many factors” — including how many opposing players are behind the puck, where they’re moving, where his own teammates are providing outlets and how much speed and control of the puck he has built up — in each circumstance.

“If you just fly around the ice, you can get taken out of so many plays by skating out of the open area,” Athanasiou said. “So it’s [about] timing it and trying to find the seams at the right time and trying to open up ice at the right time. ... Every play is different, every situation is different, but you just have to make reads.”

Lately, Athanasiou’s reads have been working out. He looks more dangerous than he has in years. But Richardson would like him to adjust his algorithm slightly.

“You’re not going to win the game with one shift,” Richardson said. “You might think you are because you get a highlight goal every once in a while. But you have to realize there are 60 minutes, and if you fuel them with four turnovers compared to one breakthrough, I don’t know that those are great odds for us. So we have to make sure we play it smartly.”

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