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Hull's help propelled Datsyuk to new heights

by Larry Wigge

Pavel Datsyuk will never forget how Brett Hull showed him the ropes as he was trying to break into the NHL. Pavel Datsyuk highlights
Pavel Datsyuk will never forget how Brett Hull showed him the ropes as he was trying to break into the NHL. Back then, the youngster from Russia hardly spoke the language as he was trying to establish himself with the Detroit Red Wings.

Datsyuk sure has a funny way of repaying his old buddy now that Hull is the co-general manager of the Dallas Stars.

Datsyuk scored three goals in Detroit's 5-2 victory at Dallas on Monday night to give the Red Wings a 3-0 lead over the Stars in their best-of-seven Western Conference Finals series. It was Pavel's first NHL hat trick of any kind, regular season or the playoffs.

"I saw him before the series," the 29-year-old center from Sverdlovsk, Russia, told me after an off-day press gathering Tuesday. "I thanked him for his help and he told me not to be too tough on his team."

There was no laugh when I told Pavel he was rubbing it in on Hullie's team. But when Datsyuk remembered Brett from his Red Wings days, he chuckled and said, "Brett's a funny guy. He always talked a lot. For me, sometimes pointing worked best. I could see in my mind what he was saying. I saw plays work. He gave me confidence to play better. He pushed me to do more. But I tried to learn to shoot like him ... but that was impossible."

Datsyuk, who is building a new house in Detroit and is shooting pretty well now, still feels self-conscious around reporters. He's worried that his command of the language is not the best. But in a moment of confidence he recalled for me the night he was in St. Louis for a game, and the Blues retired Hull's uniform No. 16.

"Yeah, Brett," he said, face brimming with a smile. "I remember one time he came back to the bench telling me he was open on the power play and I should have passed him the puck. I told him he was covered. He looked back at me and said, 'I've scored over 400 goals covered like that, kid.' "

That ditty convinced me even more how clever this Russian Rocket really is -- and while he may prefer to stay under the radar in front of the media, he's on center stage as a player every night with his breathtaking skills as a skater, playmaker, and this season, he showed us another side with a League-leading 144 takeaways defensively. In case that number doesn't pop out at you, it was an astounding 58 more than Dallas' Mike Modano, who was second.

Datsyuk's career-high 97 points were fourth in the NHL this season and he led the Red Wings in scoring for the third straight season, joining Detroit legends Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman as the only players in franchise history to lead the team in scoring in three consecutive seasons. Stamina? He was the only Detroit player to be in all 82 games in the regular season. And the takeaways isn't the only way you can see his commitment on offense and defense -- he led the NHL in plus-minus with a plus-41.

Even more impressive is that in the playoffs, where goals become increasingly tough to get, especially on the road, Datsyuk has really shined -- getting all eight of his goals.

He's not the same small, skinny-looking kid at 5-foot-10, 160 pounds that was passed over twice in the NHL Entry Draft and was finally picked 171st in 1998. He's now 5-11, 197.

“I don't know if there is a player stronger on his skates than Pavel," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "Opponents think they have him covered, and I've seen him continue to stickhandle with one hand and use his lower body strength to fight through the check and continue to go to the net.

"Sometimes you can see early in a game, when Pavel's hanging onto the puck, when he's beating players and getting away from checks, he's on top of his game. On nights like this it's tough to get the puck away from him."

"He makes moves you wouldn't even think of doing," gushed fiery Detroit center Kris Draper. "He's just unbelievable with the puck."

Just the other day, Hull was remembering his days in Detroit and his time as the “old goat” on a line with youngsters Datsyuk and Boyd Devereaux. No slight to some of the Hall of Fame caliber centers Hull played with over the years like Adam Oates, Wayne Gretzky and Mike Modano, but “The Golden Brett” left no doubt how he feels about Datsyuk.

"I still say he's the smartest player I've ever played with," Hull said. "Pavel sees the game as well as any of the elite players in this League."

With three goals the other night, this puck wizard now has eight goals and nine assists in 13 playoff games this season and 16 goals and 17 assists covering 31 playoff games over the last two seasons. Why do I bring another set of positive statistics up at this point? Well, there was a point early in last year's playoffs where Datsyuk had zero goals in 26 games and had just three goals in 42 postseason games in his first four NHL seasons.

Where once we wrote that he was an enigma wrapped in a riddle and, well, a mystery because he was so ineffective in the playoffs, now he's become Gretzky-like with his magical moves alongside Zetterberg.

"I try not to remember those early playoff games. Keep it positive," Datsyuk said about the playoff problems he once had. "I'm a different player. More focused. I know how important it is to score in the playoffs."

There's never been a doubt in my mind that Pavel Datsyuk was going to be a great playoff performer. He's too good and ...

"He plays too hard for him not to be good in the playoffs," coach Mike Babcock said in probably the best explanation for those skeptical members of the media.

"We, in Detroit, who see him every night, don't question anything about this world-class athlete," GM Ken Holland said. "But on some levels, he still has to fight those perceptions that some Euros don't play hard ... that they don't care. Just watch him closely. He plays hard every night. He cares ... a lot. Most important, he plays hard both offensively and defensively."

Quick. Smart. Plays like he's got the puck on a string. Magical hands. That's what the Red Wings expect from this former diamond in the rough that Detroit stole in the sixth round of the 1998 draft.

Holland said Datsyuk has benefited from increased ice time and responsibility.

"To me, the difference is that he used to want to beat the same guy three times on one play," Holland laughed. "Now he beats one guy and goes to the net. He is exceptional down low."

What makes Datsyuk so difficult to stop is his ability to shoot the puck on the move, a lot of times shooting off the wrong foot, when you expect him to pass the puck. What makes him so dangerous is that he gets his shot off so quickly, even in traffic, sort of like Colorado Avalanche star Joe Sakic does. Just like he did against Dallas goaltender Marty Turco in Game 3.

Some people may forget, but Datsyuk learned a lot in getting three goals and three assists in 21 games in the 2002 playoffs as the Red Wings went on to win their last Stanley Cup.

"We've had nothing but faith in him since he first stepped into this locker room. You could see the skill. You could see the passion in the way he carried himself," Draper added. "The year we won the Cup in 2002 he scored several big goals for us. In here, we've never forgotten that."

And Brett Hull has no one to blame than himself for helping Pavel Datsyuk get the confidence he has to do those marvelously magical things he does on the ice now.

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