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Datsyuk puts past doubts behind him

Saturday, 04.28.2007 / 12:00 AM / News
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Datsyuk puts past doubts behind him

By Larry Wigge, NHL.com columnist

Mystery or secret weapon?

Some will say the silky-smooth Pavel Datsyuk is an enigma wrapped in a riddle and, well, a mystery because he came into the Stanley Cup playoffs this season with zero goals in his last 26 games in the postseason.

By contrast, the numbers he's put up in the regular-season have solidified Datsyuk as a star -- 30, 28 and 27 goals the last three seasons, 38, 59 and 60 assists, 68, 87 and 87 points.

But the conflict in this story seems to roll around every year at playoff time, where he's been a standout, but in a different light.

"You don't understand," Datsyuk told me when I asked him about this perplexing playoff number after he led the Red Wings in scoring for a second-straight season.

What we do understand is that the Wings are convinced enough in the Sverdlovsk, Russian, native, to have signed him to a seven-year, $46.9 million extension just a few weeks ago.

"I don't remember last year. I try to forget ... quick," Datsyuk said, with a big smile before the Wings dispatched the Calgary Flames in six games in the first round of the playoffs. Lo and behold, Datsyuk scored goals in three games and had five points in the series.

"I'm happy. I'm not thinking about the contract. My focus is on the playoffs."

Datsyuk never had scored goals in back-to-back playoff games and he never had as many as five points in a series.

"You see my smile?" Datsyuk said before the Red Wings were set to face off with the San Jose Sharks in Round 2. "I can't close my mouth now I'm so happy."

Mystery? Yes, but that could be changed to a magical mystery if Pavel continues to contribute -- not disappear -- against the Sharks.

This has definitely been a year in transition in Detroit, with the retirement of long-time captain Steve Yzerman and the departure of Brendan Shanahan to the New York Rangers in free agency. Up front, the Wings asked Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg to step up and help lead a team that has been a contender for the best record in the NHL for more than a decade.

Amid speculation that the Wings would not meet Datsyuk's $6 million request for next season, Pavel started slowly this season -- getting just three goals and 11 assists in the team's first 23 games. Then, from December 1, or just about the time that coach Mike Babcock put Datsyuk and Zetterberg together on Detroit's top line, he finished with a remarkable 24 goals and 49 assists in the final 56 games -- many of those points coming in the final 19 games that Zetterberg missed with a knee injury.

You could say Datysuk's youth and inexperience earned him a free pass earlier in this career. Not anymore.

"We wanted to keep Pavel in a Red Wings uniform," general manager Ken Holland told me at the end of the season. "We believe in him. We believe he's one of the top 10 centermen in the game. At the age of 28, why can't he take it to another level?

"There's no doubt in my mind that Pavel Datsyuk is going to be a great playoff performer. He's too good and he plays too hard not to think at some point that he's not going to be good in the playoffs."

"That's the difference," Babcock added. "Pav plays too hard for him not to be good in the playoffs."

Quick. Smart. Plays like he's got the puck on a string. Magical hands. That's what the Wings expect from the 28-year-old former diamond in the rough that Detroit stole in the sixth round, 171st overall, in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft.

Holland said Datsyuk has benefited from increased ice time and responsibility.

"To me, the difference is that he used to want to beat the same guy three times on one play," Holland laughed. "Now he beats one guy and goes to the net. He is exceptional down low."

"He's the smartest player I've ever played with," suggested NBC analyst Brett Hull, Datsyuk's linemate for three seasons.

What makes Datsyuk so difficult to stop is his ability to shoot the puck on the move, a lot of times shooting off the wrong foot, when you expect him to pass the puck. What makes him so dangerous is that he gets his shot off so quickly, even in traffic, sort of like Colorado Avalanche star Joe Sakic does.

Some people may forget, but Datsyuk learned a lot in getting three goals and three assists in 21 games in the 2002 playoffs as the Wings went on to win the Stanley Cup.

"Scouts said he was too small and maybe not fast enough to play in the NHL," Wings chief scout Jim Nill told me a couple years ago. "He went through the draft twice without being picked. But Hakan Andersson, one of our scouts, saw him a couple of times each year and kept telling us this little guy was a really good player. He said Pavel reminded him of a young Igor Larionov with his playmaking ability.

"Finally, we decided to overlook the size questions. We decided that you couldn't take away what he could accomplish with the puck -- his ability to find a teammates in almost any situation, the moves that make him so dangerous in the NHL now."

"He's actually better here than he was in Europe," Chicago Blackhawks assistant GM Rick Dudley told me earlier this season. "He was maybe 167 pounds then and I know I had a hard time thinking that, at that size, he could do the same things in the NHL against the size of players he would be facing here.

"The skills? You knew they were not normal -- and now they are up there in the stratosphere somewhere. Truly amazing. It's clear that he is a special, special player."

Pavel Datsyuk is just one of those gifted individuals who has the ability to make moves that others only dream about. I told Datsyuk that players like himself and Sakic and Peter Forsberg seemingly have the ability of a chess master, thinking two or three moves ahead of the play.

"I see plays, yes," he said. "But not three plays ahead. ... Two, maybe."

But its the balance on his skates, the strength in his legs and the creativity in his mind that make him a triple threat on the ice and not a puzzle because he hadn't scored a goal in the playoffs since 2002.

Secret weapon or mystery? I prefer to simply call Pavel Datsyuk a very dangerous weapon.

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