Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk is three games into his season and still looking for his first point. It'll come soon, perhaps as early as Wednesday, when the Red Wings play the Washington Capitals at Joe Louis Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports).
Datsyuk is still getting up to speed after missing the first 15 games recovering from ankle surgery.
More importantly, the Red Wings, with Datsyuk's help, finally showed signs of breaking out of a prolonged scoring slump in a 4-3 overtime win against the Ottawa Senators on Monday. They snapped a streak of six consecutive games in which they scored two or fewer goals.
Detroit had a season-high 37 shots on goal against the Senators. It was the first time the Red Wings had more than 30 shots in a game this season.
In addition, they got goals from three different lines in regulation before Tomas Tatar scored in overtime on a breakaway, off a brilliant blind pass by Gustav Nyquist.
Datsyuk was on the ice for rookie Dylan Larkin's goal in the first period, but he didn't figure into any of the scoring.
It shouldn't matter.
Datsyuk's presence alone makes a difference for the Red Wings and gives opposing players and coaches headaches because it's basically impossible to figure out a player who has his array of moves, defensive structure, stealth-like awareness, and deft hand-eye coordination.
That much was obvious to the Red Wings and the Senators on Monday. It should make a major difference for Detroit going forward, provided Datsyuk can stay healthy and on the ice.
So who benefits most from Datsyuk's presence in the lineup? Here are four candidates:
In a word, why: Possession
Explain: Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill smartly put the speedy and skilled Larkin on a line with Datsyuk for the game against Ottawa. This has some staying power because Larkin is rapidly developing into one of the Red Wings' best forwards when it comes to keeping the puck in the offensive zone and generating scoring chances. Datsyuk is among the best in the world at that.
Against the Senators, Datsyuk was a plus-8 in 5-on-5 shot attempts (SAT); Larkin was a plus-7, according to war-on-ice.com. They have the ability together to make opposing forwards play on their heels and force opposing defensemen to turn. They won't easily give up the puck once they gain the offensive zone either. And Larkin can benefit from Datsyuk's vision and hands, provided he keeps his stick on the ice and is always ready for the pass. At 19 years old, he's already smart enough to know where to go on the ice to take advantage of Datsyuk's vision. He's also quick enough that he should draw defenders to him, providing Datsyuk with more room in the offensive zone. Datsyuk can already stickhandle in the penalty box if he had to; added space makes him even more dangerous.
In a word, why: Matchups
Explain: Zetterberg got off to a strong start without Datsyuk in the lineup, but his offense was beginning to dry up. He had 14 points on three goals and 11 assists in the first 11 games before scoring just one goal in the previous six games before Monday. Blashill tried to jump start Zetterberg by putting him and Datsyuk together for Datsyuk's first two games back, but it didn't have the desired effect.
By moving Zetterberg away from Datsyuk against Ottawa, Blashill gave him the ability to center his own line without worrying about ceding the middle to Datsyuk. It also gave Zetterberg the occasional easier matchup because now opposing coaches have to worry about Datsyuk as much as they have to worry about Zetterberg. Justin Abdelkader and Gustav Nyquist work well on Zetterberg's wings because they're responsible two-way players and one is a playmaker (Nyquist) and the other is a space-maker (Abdelkader). It's a line that can get up and down the ice, make skilled plays with the puck, and get open to be options. Zetterberg is as defensively aware as Datsyuk, so there is no drop-off from one line to the next when they play on separate lines. Zetterberg started the play in the defensive zone that eventually led to Nyquist delivering a picture-perfect pass to Abdelkader for the Red Wings' second goal Monday.
ENTIRE DEFENSE CORPS
In a word, why: Easier
Explain: Datsyuk is so smart and defensively aware that the game is simpler for defensemen when they're on the ice with him because they don't spend as much time defending. They instead can join the attack.
Datsyuk creates turnovers in the defensive zone or on the backcheck that most other players can't create. He'll quietly approach a puck carrier from behind, just at the moment that puck carrier thinks he might have numbers or momentum, lift the stick, swipe the puck, and go the other way in an instant. Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane has tried to steal this from Datsyuk's playbook. Datsyuk is arguably the best in the world at it, and has been for years. It makes life so much easier on Detroit's defensemen.
In a word, why: Options
Explain: Datsyuk's versatility is Blashill's best coaching weapon. He can put Datsyuk in the middle or on the wing, and play him with basically any of Detroit's forwards, and still get the same type of game out of the veteran center. If Blashill doesn't like the matchups he's getting with Datsyuk, Larkin and Tatar together on a line, he can move Datsyuk to play with Zetterberg and Nyquist, or Zetterberg and Abdelkader. Larkin can play center on the second line with Tatar and Nyquist or Tatar and Abdelkader. Larkin can also be a wing on a line with Zetterberg and Datsyuk if Blashill wanted to go that route. Don't forget too, that he has Teemu Pulkkinen, who played a few shifts with Datsyuk and Larkin against the Senators.
In addition to all of that, Blashill can slot Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening in their proper roles as the third and fourth centers, particularly because of the matchup indifference he has against the opposition's top lines because of the defensive awareness of Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Sheahan and Glendening get insulated by Datsyuk and Zetterberg and are better for it.