Playoff stars finding another gear

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Canucks' center Ryan Kesler is being compared to the great Mark Messier for his strength, leadership, timely goals and all-around play when the going gets tough. (Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)


By Stu Hackel

"It's interesting as you watch the playoffs, there's lots of nice players during the regular season and they've got good skill level and all that but if you don't got a drivetrain, if you don't compete at the highest level, you can't win at this time of the year. It's all about competition level, it's all about digging in and winning that simple little battle." -- Mike Babcock (video)

The Red Wings coach was talking about Pavel Datsyuk, who accelerated his play on Sunday night to keep Detroit alive with a 4-3 comeback win against San Jose. But it's the concept of that "drivetrain" that Babcock was speaking about that concerns us today. It's a good Detroit automotive metaphor for what moves things forward.

Obviously, there are players who don't have much of a drivetrain when the playoffs arrive because they lack the inner motivation to play harder. They don't flourish in the playoffs and, most often, neither do their teams.

And then there are the guys who have it. You can say they have extra determination, or another gear, or they raise their battle level, or take a step up -- pick your own cliché -- but the special guys in the Stanley Cup playoffs are those who aren't content with what they've done between October and mid-April and want to do things even better. They are the players who lead their teams to the Cup and win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. It's a bit too early to talk about this year's Smythe candidates, but it's not too early to notice the players who have elevated their performances.

When a player ups his game the way Datsyuk did on Sunday night, it can lift an entire team. In fact, that's just what Babcock and other coaches hope for, that their whole club moves up on the intensity scale and wants to win more. The team starts to collectively exert the extra effort to win more of those one-on-one fights for the puck, and come back harder defensively, and block more shots, break up more plays and create more of their own chances than their opponent does. You see one of your teammates give more, and you want to give more, too. It's contagious at this time of year, or should be, and you don't win in the playoffs without it.

When the Predators and Canucks battle tonight in Nashville, they'll each have some players who have stood out because they've engaged their drivetrains. The Predators fought off elimination on Saturday in Vancouver because a pair of older guys raised their play: Joel Ward and David Legwand. You don't have to be the caliber of Datsyuk to make a difference in the playoffs, and this duo teamed up for this early shorthanded goal that quieted a Vancouver crowd that came ready to celebrate the home team's five-game triumph.

Even after the Canucks scored twice before the first period ended, Legwand replied in the first minute of the second with a strange goal from behind the net (video), but that's the kind of thing players do when they get into overdrive mode. The Canucks pressured to take the lead before the second period ended, but it was Ward who gave Nashville the lead just over a minute into the third on this terrific one-timer after Kevin Bieksa made a soft clearing pass (video). That goal ignited the Preds, and a few minutes later, Ward got his second of the game as Nashville swarmed into the Canucks' zone (video).

Lots of fans recognize Legwand, the original Predator, but the 30-year-old Ward's unusual story is not well-known -- and we highly recommend reading Alan Maki's piece that first appeared in The Globe and Mail a few months back. Ward is a strong skater, a big body and as hard a worker as there is in the NHL. He scored only 10 goals during the regular season and is not known to be particularly gifted offensively, but suddenly he's got seven goals this postseason, No one else has  scored more. That's raising your game.

The guy on Vancouver who has most notably raised his game is Ryan Kesler, who tallied 41 times during the regular season and is again, alongside Datsyuk, a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward. Kesler was terrific in the first round against the Blackhawks without scoring a goal and he didn't find the net in the first two games of this series, either. He's made up for that against the Preds with five tallies in the last three matches, but his all-around resolute play has had observers comparing him to Mark Messier for his strength, leadership and timely contributions on the score sheet.

With the score tied late in the first period on Saturday night, Kesler made this incredible rush toward the goal with Nashville's Shea Weber, who was trying to defend him.

That's two guys who give their all and Kesler had a bit of an edge to get his stick in the right spot to put the Canucks in front. Then, after Ward's second-period goal gave Nashville the lead on Saturday, Kesler almost singlehandedly willed Vancouver back into the game, capped off by this goal which made the score 4-3 (video). But not enough Canucks followed Kesler's example, and having dropped a potential clinch game on home ice, they now face a tough task wrapping up the series on the road tonight or risking a Game 7 at home. And in one game, anything can happen.

The Sharks blew a similar chance on Sunday night and Datsyuk once again showed why he's not only a player with great all-around skill, but a guy who has the drive train that Babcock spoke of. Playing with a hand badly injured enough to prevent him from taking any face-offs or more than one shot on goal, Datsyuk relied on other parts of his arsenal to rally the Red Wings with three wonderful assists.

The first came less than a minute after San Jose had taken a 2-0 lead in the first, with Datsyuk circling high in the zone, turning at the blue line and finding the thinnest of seams between Dany Heatley and Logan Couture to funnel a pass down to Nicklas Kronvall for Detroit's first goal.

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Then in the third period, less than three minutes after Couture had extended San Jose's lead to 3-1, Datsyuk stickhandled behind the Sharks' net and drew the attention of three checkers. Still, he was able to feed Jonathan Ericsson, who pulled Detroit to within one.

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The Red Wings tied the score on Danny Cleary's goal less than two minutes later. And with around six minutes remaining in regulation, Datsyuk twice wrested the puck away from the Sharks' Patrick Marleau, weaved around and passed to Nick Lidstrom whose shot from the blueline was deflected in front by Tomas Holmstrom (video) and the Red Wings stayed alive.

And that's a big reason why the playoffs are so much fun. Lots of fans marveled at the Flyers' James van Riemsdyk's play this spring, especially his performance in Game 2 against the Bruins. JVR was a force and stood out during his every shift on the ice, a constant danger to Boston's defenders and Tim Thomas. Of course, Thomas has been otherwordly this spring. He's raised his game, too, as have other Bruins as well as members of the Tampa Bay Lightning  -- the guys you expect, like Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier, but also lesser knowns such as Sean Bergenheim and Dominic Moore (who did the same last year while playing for the Canadiens). Steven Stamkos, who took a while to figure it all out, now seems to better understand the commitment needed to excel in the playoffs.

This time of year, it's all about engaging that drivetrain with a whole lot of determination.