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Datsyuk, Zetterberg succeed with a wink and a nod

by Larry Wigge

Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk registered his first career hat trick in Game 3 against the Stars. Pavel Datsyuk highlights
For Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, there are nights when it's not too hard for them to turn nothing into something pretty special.

"I don't know how to explain it. Some players just seem to be on the same wavelength a lot," Zetterberg said of his unassisted back-breaking, third-period shorthanded goal, plus the first career hat trick of any kind -- regular season or playoffs -- for Datsyuk in Detroit's 5-2 victory against the Dallas Stars in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals on Monday night. "Sometimes Pavel will give me a wink or nod his head ... and I usually know what he means."

"No magic," Datsyuk said. "In the playoffs you have to go hard to the net -- and that's what we did."

Not smoke and mirrors. Not abracadabra. Just a friendly wink and a nod. Sort of like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri.

"Datsyuk and Zetterberg were absolutely phenomenal," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said of Pavel's hat trick and Henrik's one goal and two assists. "It's funny, but there are no signs that they are going to put up that kind of performance. All I know is good players have a way of playing real good when it counts."

"Those two are a rare couple of players," Stars coach Dave Tippett said after Detroit took a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference Finals. "They're not only the best checking line, but also the best scoring line. And they're just making plays.  Can we defend them better? Sure, we'd love to defend them better. But they're making plays that are counting and that was the difference in the game."

This was Detroit's ninth straight win, its most ever in a single postseason and the longest in the NHL since Montreal won 11 in a row in 1993. More important, the Red Wings will go into Game 4 on Wednesday night with the chance to skate into the Stanley Cup Final for the fourth time in 11 seasons.

"They are both in such good position defensively that they can turn on a dime and take the puck the other way before the other team realizes it -- and tonight it was even more important the way they responded to score right after we gave up a goal," said veteran center Kris Draper. "That can really beat an opponent down."

"I've been watching them play the last four seasons and they are great together or apart," captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "But when we put them together it seems like no one can stop them. It's uncanny sometimes the way they keep finding one another."

Magical ad libs and instincts aren't the only things that makes Datsyuk and Zetterberg so special. It's the surprise that these two players are even getting the chance to play on the best stage in the world. After all, some 170 players were chosen in the NHL Entry Draft in 1998 before Datsyuk and even more, 209 players, were picked ahead of Zetterberg just one year later.

"I had never heard of Pavel and Henrik. Well, I had read a little about Henrik in the Swedish newspapers and magazines I get from back home. But never in my wildest dreams did I think these names on a draft list would bring so much creativity and production to our lineup," Lidstrom continued. "And it's no fluke, either. (GM) Ken Holland and (assistant GM) Jim Nill seem to find great players every year. You don't know how much confidence that gives the guys who have been here for a while to know that somebody pretty darn good is going to come in to compete for a roster spot almost every year."

Like Datsyuk, Zetterberg's size was a point of contention in an NHL where bigger was better during all of those years where teams were able to trap and obstruct the smaller players who weren't equipped to fight through the hands, arms and stick-checks. Datsyuk is now listed at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds and Zetterberg at 6-foot, 190. Before they were drafted, Datsyuk was 5-10, 160 pounds and Zetterberg 5-11, 175 pounds.

There's an elite level that often comes after players with the kind of skills that Datsyuk and Zetterberg have flashed in front of us ... and continue to do so.

"The thing about elite players is you see what they do and the numbers they put up, but the next sign is the intensity they play with every shift," Wayne Gretzky once told me. "The next time you see them play, just look at the intensity on their faces and in their eyes. That's what impresses me most about Datsyuk and Zetterberg."

Red Wings goaltender Chris Osgood laughs when he says that the beauty is in the eye of the beholder in talking about Datsyuk and Zetterberg.

"They are relentless," Osgood said after posting his ninth straight playoff victory. "I remember facing them when I was with St. Louis and thinking; 'Take a shift off once in a while, please.' They were coming at us in waves all night, every time we played them.

"Of course, now that I'm back in Detroit, I'll give them a pat on the butt and encourage them to keep putting the pressure on the opposition. It's really something to watch. It seems like every time they are on the ice, they are dangerous."

With Datsyuk and Zetterberg, you get the instincts, the deft puck-handling skills, the moves, the intelligence of a chess master -- two of them in fact -- moving the rest of the pieces around on the chess board to their advantage. Simply incredible. You can talk about Jordan and Pippen, Manning and Harrison and Gretzky and Kurri, but Pav and Hank are doing these marvelously magical things in the here and now.

For the Red Wings, the idea that they were about to lose their consistent success when the salary cap came along after the lockout in 2005, is another obstacle that great scouting has overcome.

We go into each draft hoping to find at least two players. And we've discovered through time that if you're going to find a sleeper, it's probably going to be in Europe. Everybody wants the 6-2, 220-pound highly skilled North American power player. But those guys go high in the draft. We're not going to get them, because we usually don't pick until the end of each round. - Detroit Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill
"There are players out there, you just have to find them," said Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill. "We go into each draft hoping to find at least two players. And we've discovered through time that if you're going to find a sleeper, it's probably going to be in Europe. Everybody wants the 6-2, 220-pound highly skilled North American power player. But those guys go high in the draft. We're not going to get them, because we usually don't pick until the end of each round."

What you have to give the Red Wings credit for is sticking to their guns and drafting for skill and talent up and down the draft, when, at that point, other teams might be looking for a specific type of player like a defensive defenseman, a tough guy, a big center for a particular role in the later rounds.

But Nill wasn't finished with his explanation ... and maybe a little secret.

"Actually," he added, "Pavel was even more difficult to evaluate. He went through the draft twice without being picked. But Hakan Andersson, one of our scouts, saw him a couple of times each year and kept telling us this little guy was a really good player. He said Pavel reminded him of a young Igor Larionov with his playmaking ability. Finally, we decided to overlook the size questions. We decided that you couldn't take away what he could accomplish with the puck -- his ability to find a teammates in almost any situation, the moves that make him so dangerous in the NHL now."

Difficult to evaluate. Even more difficult for NHL teams to stop.

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