DETROIT – Backs to summer, on the brink of watching Detroit skate Lord Stanley around its arena again, Pittsburgh keeps mumbling how getting toasted 5-0 in a Stanley Cup Finals game isn’t nearly as bad as losing a heartbreaker in overtime.
It’s a fine coping mechanism but it’s not true in this case, where an x-factor changed the dynamics of the Finals.
The Penguins may be able to spin it back, but to shrug off Saturday’s Wings domination that took a hard-fought, back-and-forth series and left Detroit up 3-2 heading into Tuesday’s Game 6 is to ignore the obvious.
With the return of its best player Detroit, as you might expect, is a different team. Perhaps too different to be stopped.
Datsyuk missed the first four games of the series due to a foot injury and while his absence garnered attention, it wasn't as much as if it had been one of the NHL’s (or NBC’s) chosen stars.
“(Imagine) if (the Penguins) played the series without (Evgeni) Malkin and (Sidney) Crosby,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock suggested.
Datsyuk isn’t the household name of those guys even though he’s a Hart Trophy finalist and his offensive numbers (32 goals and 65 assists) left him fourth in the regular-season scoring race. The top three? No less than Alexander Ovechkin(notes), Malkin and Crosby.
Datsyuk’s best attributes are subtle for casual fans though. His back checking, ice vision and ability to move a puck through a neutral zone don’t translate easily to SportsCenter.
“One of the best players in the world both offensively and defensively,” Babcock added.
It was all on display Saturday. He crushed Malkin with a check in the first period, setting a tone for a night when Pittsburgh’s two stars would combine to produce no points and just two shots. On the other end he assisted on Detroit’s first and fourth goals.
Ask his teammates and his impact was felt even before that, just having the guy walk into the locker room and lace on his skates was enough.
“I could see it in the guys’ eyes,” Dan Cleary said. “They knew he was playing. If you watched him all season you know how much he means to our club.”
How many watched and appreciated is open to debate. Datsyuk is the league’s least hyped superstar. The NHL loves to market the marketable and Datsyuk isn’t one of them. He stands a slight 5-feet-11, speaks with a heavy Russian accent and isn’t nearly as flashy as other top players.
Mostly his problem is he is a Red Wing, part of an organization that thrives on different players taking star turns. Detroit lost Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), Brian Rafalski(notes), Draper and others for stretches of this postseason and never missed a beat.
They’re the Red Machine, they just put guys in slots and succeed. They got two goals in the Cup Finals from Justin Abdelkader(notes), a fourth-line, minor-league call up. “Guys have stepped up with the games of their lives,” Draper said.
It’s how you wind up one game from a fifth Stanley Cup in 12 seasons. It’s also how you lose your best player early in the conference finals, wipe out Chicago in five games anyway and leave people wondering just how valuable the guy was in the first place?
If nothing else, absence (and return) has made everyone appreciate Datsyuk more. By the second period Pittsburgh was chopping at his ankles hoping to send him back to the disabled list. It didn’t work – Datsyuk was bouncing around postgame in sneakers, not an ice bag or a walking cast. Sunday he declared himself “feeling good.”
That left Penguins coach Dan Blysma to concede that they needed to adjust to Datsyuk’s presence on both ends of the ice.
“He's an elite player,” Blysma said. “He's certainly a big factor in the game. We're going to have to almost take a more defensive stance against him when he's out there than (Henrik) Zetterberg checking Crosby.”
And that’s why any talk of this defeat representing just a bad night, just a tough venue or not as bad as an emotionally-draining one-goal defeat doesn’t ring true. A bad loss is an emotional concern, an opponent that just got significantly better while delivering a bad loss is emotional and tactical.
“The first two we played here they were close games; could go either way,” Crosby said. “Even the games at our rink, too. They were good hockey games. So, you know, this was kind of out of left field.”
It was actually right out of the injured list, getting the Wings back (or close) to full strength and the sample size we have to analyze the teams in their current state is Detroit 5, Pittsburgh 0.
This isn’t about forgetting Saturday; it’s about remembering what Datsyuk did and stopping it. Otherwise cue up the parade on Woodward and let’s debate whether a guy can miss seven playoff games and deserve the Conn Smythe anyway.