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Brian Cazeneuve
May 02, 2011
That's how his fellow NHL players describe Pavel Datsyuk's dazzling all-around game. But to the aging Red Wings he's beautiful to watch, and the key to their quest for another Cup
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May 02, 2011

Disgusting, But In A Good Way

That's how his fellow NHL players describe Pavel Datsyuk's dazzling all-around game. But to the aging Red Wings he's beautiful to watch, and the key to their quest for another Cup

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But for all his offensive highlights, Datsyuk revels in the inconspicuous subtleties of defensive play. His most sublime skill is the swipe, an act of mischief in which he creeps up on a foe from behind and lifts his stick with his own, sometimes no more than an inch or two, just enough to steal the puck with such deft stealth that it isn't uncommon for opposing forwards to attempt a phantom play with a puck they still believe they have on their sticks. It's the hockey equivalent of the unsuspecting victim who slaps at his trouser pockets long after they have been picked clean. Playing 82 games in 2007--08 and 80 in '09--10, Datsyuk led the NHL in takeaways with 144 and 132. No other player broke 90 in either season. "In my mind he's the most complete player in the NHL," says Montreal's Brent Sopel, who spent 10 years in the Western Conference with the Canucks, Kings and Blackhawks. "Some of the moves he pulls out are things you see in a video game."

Wings veteran Kris Draper has a theory about Datsyuk: "It's funny sometimes, watching him cut through the middle making two guys collide, like [something out of] Top Gun," Draper says. "His balance is amazing." Linemate Tomas Holmstrom thinks Datsyuk might have a third eye. "When Pavel has the puck," he says, "I always keep my stick on the ice. He can be over here going east-west; I'll be over there, kind of northeast or something, and he'll find me with the puck."

Four times Datsyuk has won the Lady Byng trophy as the league's most gentlemanly player, and three times he has earned the Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forward. But ask him about individual awards, and he reverts to the playful nature that has won over teammates. Did he like winning the Lady Byng in a game that esteems rugged play? "Sure," he says. "I like ladies." Asked about his first thought when he has to rush back on defense, he says, "Must get back before Holmstrom, so he's the slow one and not me." He claims to have found a silver lining in the broken hand he suffered in December: "When the cast comes off, I ask my doctor, 'Have I recovered so I can play the violin?' The doctor says, 'But of course you can play the violin.' I say, 'Wow, this is great. Before this injury, I could never play violin at all. I must break the other hand so I can play guitar.'"

Datsyuk has a thoughtful side too. He loves to read about statesmen whose leadership skills extended to their sense of humor—Winston Churchill is his favorite—and he is a faithful Russian Orthodox Christian who crosses himself before games and keeps photos of saints in his locker. He buys toys at Christmas and asks others to distribute them in children's wards at area hospitals so their origin remains anonymous. "He won't tell you that, so I'll tell you," says Dan Milstein, a close friend and business associate in Detroit. "You never hear him say a bad word about anyone and you never hear him complain. I can't think of someone who appreciates his place in life like Pavel."

It's essential to understand Datsyuk's cheery and selfless nature, free of swagger and bravado, to appreciate how well he fits in with the Red Wings. The NHL's most consistently successful team of the last 15 years has had an abundance of Hall of Fame--caliber players, including Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Luc Robitaille, Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman, who have subjugated their games in return for the structure that enables team success. Even Brett Hull made the occasional acquaintance of his goaltender while playing in Detroit late in his career. "If you can use your skills to score," says Holland, "you can use them to be great in other parts of the game too."

With that success has come extra physical wear and a need to share the workload. Though the Wings have the best cumulative record and played the most playoff games over the past two decades, they haven't had a player finish among the NHL's top three point scorers or top four goal scorers since 1995. By himself, Lidstrom, who turned 41 on Thursday, has played 251 playoff matches, second in NHL history to Chris Chelios's 266—the extra three-plus seasons of postseason games makes him about 50 in Florida Panthers years. Detroit has also placed seven players on Olympic rosters in 2010 and 10 in 2006, more than any club during that stretch.

It was understandable, then, that at times this season the Red Wings seemed worn out. Besides Datsyuk, veterans Brian Rafalski, Dan Cleary, Mike Modano and Draper missed time because of injuries. Lidstrom was a minus player for the first time in his 20-year career, finishing the season --2. Starting goalie Jimmy Howard often struggled, and veteran backup Chris Osgood, a playoff stalwart, hasn't played since Jan. 4 because of a hernia. With Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit's top scorer this year, out for the Coyotes series because of an injured left knee and forward Johan Franzen missing Game 4 with a bad left ankle, the club seemed ripe for a reckoning. Instead, 13 different Wings scored against Phoenix, and the team earned valuable time to rest—and, in the case of Zetterberg and Franzen, extra days to heal before the next series. "Guys here know it's really this time of year that matters," says Lidstrom. "That's when you'll really see Pavel shine. He's so good for us, it's scary."

So scary, it's disgusting.

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