May 12, 2011
When you're covering Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin(notes), you have a pretty good idea what you're in for — the guy throws zero off-speed pitches. Instead, he steps on the gas and drives his legs, throws the weight of his body onto his stick, and whips a shot toward the goal as hard as he possibly can.
When you're covering a player like Alex Kovalev(notes) of the Pittsburgh Penguins, you know what you're in for — sliders, knuckleballs, and change-ups. He's never going to be a drive-wide-and-jam-one-home guy. He's skill over will — that's not meant to be derogatory, just accurate.
And then there's Pavel Datsyuk(notes) of the Detroit Red Wings, flitting about like wisps of smoke, appearing here and there to suffocate offensive players before gusting back with the wind in the opposite direction.
His slapshot could be a slap-pass; his dish could be a look-off. If you go through a box of chocolate, you occasionally do know what you're going to get. Datsyuk's chocolate is all the same shape — and every time you have to guess what's coming.
In sum, he's the toughest player in the NHL to defend because of the breadth of his arsenal, and his ability to conceal which weapon he's going to use next. Defensemen are always guessing.
Try to comprehend how a player puts up point-per-game numbers while racking up some of his accomplishments, one of which is winning two Stanley Cups. After all, a player only gets so much ice time.
He's won the Selke for the league's best defensive forward three times, and is nominated again this year. He's won the Lady Byng for the league's most gentlemanly player four times (twice he won both in the same season). That in itself is mind-blowing.
The incomprehensible duality of being able to defend with ferocity without taking penalties is impressive enough, but to earn the label "gentlemanly" takes it to a whole other level. The best defensive defensemen in the league can certainly make no such claim (think Pronger, Chara, Weber), and his defensively apt peers on forward, if he has any, are more likely to be snarling aggressors like Ryan Kesler(notes).
It's only logical, then, to assume he's not from this planet. It has to be true, what with that ice cream cone shaped head and ability to use a stick made of black matter, I assume. I assume it's made of black matter, because apparently nobody's able to lift it when he has the puck, yet he's able to dictate where every other player's stick goes when he wants what they have.
And to wield that magician's wand and be able to gingerly, surgically massage the puck on zone entries only furthers my conviction. He took the puck into San Jose's zone earlier in this series, into a sea of feeding-frenzied Sharks, and deftly shifted 90 degrees, put the puck behind his own back and picked it up on the other side as to not expose it to defenders.
Even at a near stop, the defenders looked petrified — do we attack?
He changes the pace with a sharp fluidity, if that's possible, and they seem to know — if we go at him because he's stopped, he's going to dish to a linemate flying into the zone and we'd be hosed. If we give him space, well, then we've just given Pavel Datsyuk time and space in the offensive zone, which is just about as petrifying a concept as watching Gretzky with it, the father of the jam-packed arsenal.
He's one of the rare players in the league that nobody has a book on because of that seemingly endless creativity, his inability to get stuck in one mode which so many other forwards succumb to. It's easy to get locked in — "I'm shooting here" — yet he seems to have no lock.
In these playoffs, he's transcended being "one of the league's great players," and joined the upper echelon which once housed only Crosby and Ovechkin. And while Ovy seemed to have one foot out the door this season and Stamkos is still on the long journey to see if the club will someday accept him, it seems that Datsyuk has walked in the back door.
His game has no excess, just artistry. Somehow he's flashy but not showy, confident but not cocky, and along the way he helps folks remember what being a "fan" is supposed to be like.
The way the older generation discusses the greats of the game before us, deifying the heroes that brought them so much joy, I'll tell my kids about watching him at his prime.
I'm impartial on Thursday night's game, but if there were a reason to root for one team, it's to be guaranteed more Datsyuk. His highlight reel is an art gallery, and I'm not through looking yet.