He put on his latest show Saturday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena. He poked the puck past Keith Yandle(notes) at center ice and took off. When he reached the right faceoff circle, he stuck out his left leg to ward off the defenseman’s swiping stick.
Then he made his move. A left-handed shot, he pulled the puck between his legs on his backhand, switched to his forehand and fired. He might as well have twirled the puck on the tip of his index finger.
Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov(notes) stopped the shot, but had no chance on the rebound. Darren Helm(notes) scored with 58.2 seconds left in the first period. That gave the Detroit Red Wings a 3-0 lead in a game they would win 4-3, taking a 2-0 lead over the Phoenix Coyotes in this first-round playoff series.
“With all due respect,” NBC’s Mike (Doc) Emrick said at the end of the first, “Detroit 3, the Washington Generals, nothing.”
Emrick didn’t mean it as a criticism of the Coyotes. He meant it as a tribute to Datsyuk, who already had a goal and two assists at that point. Datsyuk would assist on the Wings’ fourth goal, too, giving him four points, a career high for the playoffs.
In 38 years of broadcasting hockey, Emrick had used a Harlem Globetrotters reference only once before. He did it in December when a player danced around the struggling New Jersey Devils.
That player was Datsyuk, who had a goal and two assists in a 4-1 Detroit victory.
“Pav went through about three guys,” Emrick said. “I think I later described it as him going up the interstate to Albany, beating a couple of the Albany Devils and coming back to finish it off. And I said, ‘This is like the Globies and the Generals – the Washington Generals.
“Anyway, this is probably the last time that I’ll use it, because now it’s been done twice. I shouldn’t go back to it again.”
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It’s OK, Doc. We’re all running out of ways to describe Datsyuk. No player in the NHL is more entertaining with the puck. The 5-foot-11, 194-pound Russian, whom the Red Wings stole in the sixth round of the 1998 NHL draft, drops jaws routinely with his hand-eye coordination and creativity.
“It’s very humbling when you go 1-on-1against Pavel Datsyuk,” said Wings center Kris Draper(notes), who has won the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. “You might as well bring your own puck. You’re not getting his.”
But Datsyuk is no hot dog, and he’s more than a magician.
Asked about his between-the-legs move, Datsyuk said the fans had made him too excited. He called it a “stupid thing.”
“Maybe my head too late, my arm go between leg,” Datsyuk joked.
Datsyuk has a wicked sense of humor that comes through despite his heavy Russian accent. He has a tireless work ethic and well-rounded game. He’s strong on his skates and with his stick. For all his offensive ability, he has won the Selke himself – three times. He also had two hits, three takeaways and three blocked shots Saturday. He won 16 of the 20 faceoffs he took.
“To me, Pavel Datsyuk’s the most complete player in the National Hockey League,” Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz said earlier this season. “I marvel at his ability. He has so much joy in his game.”
“He’s a hockey player,” Trotz said. “That’s his passion. You can tell. That’s why he’s great. There’s a lot of very skilled people in our business that have a tremendous amount of ability. They have almost as much ability as Pav does, but they don’t have the heart. They don’t have the joy – that passion and that determination that separates him from a lot of guys.”
When the fans and media talk about the best players in the game, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby(notes) and the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin(notes) are usually at the top of the list. When NHL players talk about the best of their peers, Datsyuk’s name often comes up, too.
“If you’re going to look strictly on statistics and look on paper, you’re going to say Crosby probably, Ovechkin,” St. Louis Blues forward David Backes(notes) said in December, when Crosby was reaching new heights and dominating the league.
“But you play against Datsyuk, and you see how tenacious he is on a backcheck and stripping pucks and doing the little things, killing penalties, winning faceoffs. He ends up such a complete package that’s really tough to find along with his offensive prowess and passing and puck skills. I think that’s why he gets a lot of attention from the players.”
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Zetterberg missed Game 1 with a knee injury. The Wings fell behind early 1-0, took a bunch of penalties and looked sluggish. Datsyuk put the Wings on the board in the second period, picking up the puck behind the net, wrapping around and stuffing it in on his backhand. That ignited a 4-2 victory.
CBC cameras caught Zetterberg skidding to stop and grimacing in pain while skating at 8:06 a.m. on Saturday. He sat out Game 2, too. Then the Wings lost perennial playoff hero Johan Franzen(notes) early in the first period, when he took a hit from Shane Doan(notes) and crashed into the boards face-first. Before Franzen returned midway through the second – his face held together with stitches and bandages, his nose plugged with gauze, the fans chanting his name – Datsyuk had helped the Wings take a 4-1 lead.
Datsyuk scored the first goal, toe-dragging the puck away from defenseman Adrian Aucoin(notes) into the slot and firing a shot through a screen. He assisted on the second goal. He assisted on the third with that between-the-legs move on Yandle.
“The guy’s disgusting,” Yandle said. “Fun to watch, but not fun to play against.”
Then he assisted on the fourth goal early in second period.
“Anyone see Datsyuk today?” Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Duchene(notes) posted on his Twitter account during the game. “Just saw a few minutes and that guy is putting on a clinic. IMO top 3 player in the game.”
Finally, he played defense.
When the Wings had to kill a two-man disadvantage in the third period, the forward coach Mike Babcock used was Datsyuk. When the Wings were protecting their one-goal lead in the final minute, Babcock put Datsyuk out again.
“Mike must wake up every morning going, ‘I’ve got Pavel Datsyuk. That’s pretty cool, and I don’t have to worry. He can play against anybody in the world up front,’ ” Trotz said. “And most nights, he dominates anybody in the world.”
Or, as Emrick might say, the globe.