There was a point in the opening round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs when the star players from the Anaheim Ducks and the Detroit Red Wings were essentially canceling each other out, and it was the depth players from the second-seeded Ducks who propelled them to within one victory of the Western Conference Semifinals.
The role players for the Red Wings have stepped to the fore in the second round. Though Detroit's top two centers have done their part at the defensive end, they have combined for one goal in the series and three points in the past four games.
Now, for the third time this postseason, the seventh-seeded Red Wings face elimination. The top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks can end their surprising run Wednesday night in Game 7 at United Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS). To avoid that scenario, the Red Wings need Zetterberg and Datsyuk to step up as they did in the first round.
"That's why they are who they are," Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "I wish I could tell you why. They bring it every night and in games like these is when they shine the most. They seem to find that comfort zone and just go out there and produce and make things happen out of nowhere. They're two of the best players in the League, and we're really happy that they're on our club and not the other team's."
Zetterberg and Datsyuk have well-earned reputations as two of the NHL's top two-way forwards, but the Red Wings could use some offense from them in Game 7. Datsyuk had a highlight-worthy goal in Game 3 and made a nifty pass to set up a score in Game 6. Zetterberg had a dominant outing in Game 2, neutralizing Chicago's top center Jonathan Toews and collecting two assists. Zetterberg has one assist in the four games since.
Damien Brunner and Daniel Cleary and those on the Red Wings' fourth line have been providing goals, but the top guns have not been on target of late. They have been close. Zetterberg has 16 shots on goal in the past four games, including four each in Games 5 and 6. Datsyuk had six on net in Game 6.
"[Datsyuk] had six shots on net, he was home free, he didn't score, he didn't get up over the pad, but he's due," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "The way I look at guys like that, when they haven't scored in a bit, they're due. They're bound to come through.
"Everyone talked about Toews for a long time, it's the same thing. When you're due, you're a good player and you work hard and determined, eventually you're going to break out. To me, those guys are like money in the bank as far as I'm concerned. Our third and fourth lines were good, they scored three goals [in Game 6] and we'll let the other guys join the party."
Zetterberg and Datsyuk played together for much of the season and for the first six games of the first round. Babcock split them up in Game 7 against the Ducks, and they dominated play at both ends of the ice.
They are similar players, yet different. Zetterberg is tough yet skilled; Datsyuk is skilled yet tough. They can make a defenseman look bad in a variety of ways.
"They're not different in a lot of ways," Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith said. "They're both tricky players, and you have to be on your toes and ready to be good defensively when they're out there and when you're out there against them. They both have different style, but in a lot of ways they are similar players. They are both good offensively and defensively."
Much of the focus in the first half of this series was on how the top forwards on the Red Wings were frustrating the big guns from the Blackhawks. In the past two games, Chicago's top four forwards have found more open space while the Blackhawks have kept the Red Wings' dynamic duo from controlling the play.
"I don't know. It is tough to say," Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson responded when asked how the Blackhawks were limiting them. "They are super-skilled guys. Those two guys are two of the best players in the world. When you play against those type of players, you just have to try and take away time and space from them, but it is a five-man unit. It is not just a couple guys who have to be on top of them. It has to be the whole unit working together, having a good gap.
"You can't do any bad giveaways or stuff like that. It has been working pretty good so far. We just have one more game that we really have to bear down here and make our best performance of the playoffs so far."
"They bring it every night and in games like these is when they shine the most. They seem to find that comfort zone and just go out there and produce and make things happen out of nowhere. They're two of the best players in the League, and we're really happy that they're on our club and not the other team's." -- Niklas Kronwall on Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg
Datsyuk set up two goals in Game 2 against the Ducks, helping the Red Wings earn a split in Anaheim. He had a three-point game and a highlight-reel snipe in Game 6 to help Detroit avoid elimination.
Zetterberg's performance in important contests in the past five weeks is nothing short of extraordinary. He had 10 points in the final four games of the regular season -- all Detroit victories -- as the Red Wings clinched a playoff berth for the 22nd consecutive season.
The Red Wings captain had five points, including three goals, in Games 6 and 7 against the Ducks to help rally his club to its first playoff series victory with "Z" wearing the "C."
That's 15 points in the team's six most important games of the season to date. Toss in two points in a critical Game 2 victory at United Center when the Red Wings avoided a 2-0 hole in this series, and his ability to produce when the team needs him is beyond reproach.
"I think you always when you're in this situation, you look back at what you've done before and kind of use the experience you've been through," Zetterberg said. "I think it is nothing different for tomorrow. It is nice that we've been through it. It is going to be a great atmosphere here tomorrow and an exciting game."
Game 7s are often unique chapters in a series' legacy. Sometimes a wild series ends with a relatively close and tightly played affair. Sometimes it is the player people least expect who becomes a hero to a fan base forever. Red Wings fans know of this phenomenon too well -- don't mention Max Talbot's name lightly in Hockeytown.
There are also the times when the guys who are expected to shine do just that. It is something Zetterberg and Datsyuk have done quite a bit when the Red Wings have needed them.
"The best of the best rise to the occasion," Babcock said. "Normally that's not being special in those games, that's just doing what you normally do and allowing yourself to execute."