DISGUSTING, BUT IN A GOOD WAY

May 01, 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

The move might as well have been done with a wand instead of a hockey stick, a rare moment of on-ice sorcery that elevates a mere highlight to an act of enchantment. In the first period of the Red Wings' second game against the Coyotes on April 16, Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk swiftly skated the puck into the offensive zone. Ahead of him stood Phoenix goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, a countryman who had seen virtually all of Datsyuk's bag of tricks. "He knows my moves very well," says Datsyuk, a Russian teammate of Bryzgalov's at three Olympics, "so I wanted to shock him." With that, Datsyuk tucked his stick back between his skates, stickhandled the puck around his left leg and flicked a wrist shot at the net. Bryzgalov made the initial save, but Datsyuk's teammate Darren Helm flipped home the rebound.

In all Datsyuk added a goal and two more assists as the Wings won 4--3. "The guy is disgusting," said Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle. "It has to be a collective five-guy unit to take care of him, because one or two guys he's going to embarrass." With a loose translation from jockspeak to English, disgusting is a negative-positive term of resigned admiration—see nasty, filthy, sick and bad dude—that simply means the guy does things the rest of the world can't.

Thanks largely to Datsyuk, 32, who leads the Red Wings with six points and the postseason with a +6 rating, Detroit became the only team to sweep its first-round playoff series. Injured and aging, the perennial contenders are still as dangerous as ever, and any team should dread the prospect of facing them. "Quiet confidence" is how Wings general manager Ken Holland describes his team's posture. "We know what it takes. That's what makes Pav so valuable. What do you need—a goal, a penalty kill, a face-off win, a great takeaway, even a hit? Pav does anything at any time as well as anyone in the game."

THE RED WINGS discovered Datsyuk as a teenager quite by accident in 1997, when their chief European scout Hakan Andersson went to Moscow to watch someone else. Instead he saw the 19-year-old Datsyuk, then about 5'7" and 150 pounds—he goes 5'11", 194 now—but with magic hands and hockey sense beyond his years. Andersson convinced Holland to take the wispy sprite with the 171st pick in the 1998 entry draft. Datsyuk was certain his Dynamo club teammates were kidding when they told him he'd been drafted into the NHL. "They showed me the newspaper two days later," Datsyuk says, "And I thought, 'O.K., printing mistake.'"

He also wondered, So now what? Life in his hometown of Sverdlovsk (which has since reclaimed its pre-Soviet name of Yekaterinburg), an industrial city near the Ural Mountains, had been so simple. His family's fourth-floor walk-up overlooked an outdoor rink. He learned to anticipate hockey moves by playing chess several hours a week, and he developed outstanding balance and his ability to control pucks with his skates by playing ice soccer. His mother, Galina, a cook, died when he was 16—his father, Valery, a van driver, passed away a few years later—after she had taught him the humility that defines him on and off the ice. When Pavel met his future wife, Svetlana, at age 18, he was too modest to tell her he was a hockey player. Though Datsyuk has often been praised for his unselfish passing game, he says it was actually born of practicality. "I didn't like to shoot," he says, "because I didn't want to buy a new stick if I broke one."

When Datsyuk showed up for Detroit's rookie camp in 1999, Holland had no idea what he was getting. Other skilled, undersized European players were intent on showing off by making risky offensive plays, but Datsyuk was almost too modest to flaunt his abilities. "He was always high in the offensive zone, very safe," Holland recalls. "I didn't see him as a very dynamic player."

After letting Datsyuk work on his game in Russia for two more years, the Red Wings finally brought him to Detroit in 2001. The Wings won the Cup that season, and Datsyuk knew he had found a home. In an early-season game in L.A., his giveaway had led to a Kings overtime goal. The next day the team was on a bus to the rink when teammate Igor Larionov, a 40-year-old fellow Russian, consoled him. "He expected the coaches to yell at him or something bad," Larionov recalls. "It was my job to tell him it was O.K. 'Learn from it. You'll be better,' I told him."

Datsyuk wasn't a goal scorer right away. He scored just 23 goals over his first two seasons, and the Detroit brass told him to shoot more often. The next year he scored 30. They asked him to work on face-offs, so he'd repeat them after practice as if they were a detention punishment. "He had these natural gifts of an All-Star," recalls captain Nicklas Lidstrom, "but he also worked and worked at all the little things the way a fourth-line guy would. That's why what you see today is one of the best players in the NHL."

Before this season, when he missed 26 games with injuries—19 of them with a broken right hand—Datsyuk had led the Wings in scoring six straight years, winning a second Cup in 2008 and driving opponents nuts. "It seems like you're never really playing against him; you're playing against his shadow," says Canadiens defenseman Hal Gill, who was often assigned to cover Datsyuk during the finals in '08 and '09 when Gill played for the Penguins. "You try to keep him from the net, and the next thing you know he pops out the other side."

Even his more celebrated countryman Alex Ovechkin admits to checking YouTube for documentation of Datsyuk's work. This year for the first time Datsyuk beat out Ovechkin for the Kharlamov Trophy, given annually to the NHL's top Russian player.

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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"IT SEEMS LIKE YOU'RE NEVER REALLY PLAYING AGAINST [DATSYUK]," SAYS ONE OPPONENT. "YOU'RE PLAYING AGAINST HIS SHADOW."

IT'S ESSENTIAL TO UNDERSTAND DATSYUK'S CHEERY AND SELFLESS NATURE TO APPRECIATE HOW WELL HE FITS IN WITH THE RED WINGS.

PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID E. KLUTHOHOT WING Datsyuk stormed through Detroit's first-round sweep of the Coyotes, scoring two goals, dishing out four assists and dropping jaws with his stickwork.
PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID E. KLUTHOPLAYOFF POSTER BOY Lidstrom (center, in red) has played more than three seasons' worth of postseason games but still had plenty of pop in Round 1. PHOTOCARLOS OSORIO/AP (DATSYUK)GLITZ AND GRIT While Datsyuk (above) dazzled with a between-the-legs assist, winger Justin Abdelkader helped hold Phoenix to 10 goals in four games. PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)