CHICAGO -- Ask Jonathan Toews about Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk and his eyes light up a little bit.
The Chicago Blackhawks captain usually tries to fight back a smile, knowing he's talking about a rival team's top player, but it's usually futile. Toews envies Datsyuk's two-way game quite a bit -- making him a lot like the rest of the hockey world -- and 34-year old Datsyuk said he's been impressed by the two-way force 25-year old Toews has grown into in Chicago.
That's why it was somewhat fitting to see each of their names listed Wednesday, along with Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, as Selke Award finalists. The award is given to the NHL's top defensive forward as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
Just as fitting is the fact they'll face off against each other in a highly anticipated Western Conference Semifinal series that begins Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC) at United Center. Naturally, each was asked about the other following morning skates.
"It's amazing the stuff he can do physically out there," Toews said of Datsyuk. "Most guys like that, to even come close to that skill level … they don't maybe work as hard as he does defensively. It's pretty amazing to watch him play, but an even bigger test to go against him. We need to be ready for it."
Datsyuk said he feels similarly about Toews.
"We play [the] same type of game," he said. "We fight every year against each other. It's not easy. When a good player plays against a good player, every time they make each other better. He's grown up. You can see almost every year. He's improved lots year by year."
This season in particular you could see the comparisons -- at least from a statistical vantage point.
Toews, who finished second to the Vancouver Canucks' Ryan Kesler for the 2011 Selke, tied for the lead in goals for Chicago with Patrick Kane (23) and finished with a team-best plus-28 rating. Toews tied Datsyuk for the League lead in takeaways (56) and finished fourth among Blackhawks forwards with 16 blocked shots.
Toews was second to Bergeron in faceoff winning percentage at 59.9 percent, and his average ice time of 19:20 per game was second-highest among Blackhawks forwards.
Datsyuk, who has won three Selkes, had 49 points in 47 games. His 15 goals were a team-high, as was his plus-21 rating. He blocked 30 shots, which was second to Drew Miller's 41 among Red Wings forwards. Datsyuk played an average of 20:10 per game, his highest ice time since the 2009-10 season, and won 55 percent of his faceoffs.
Datsyuk won the Kharlamov Trophy this season, which is presented each year by Sovetsky Sport to the best Russian player in the NHL, and his shootout goal while playing in the Kontinental Hockey League during the lockout was named the KHL's top goal.
Datsyuk's strength with the puck is something that continues to amaze opponents. He's listed at 5-foot-11 and 198-pounds but 6-2, 208-pound Toews said Datsyuk plays like somebody much bigger.
"He's more physically imposing than you'd think," Toews said. "He's definitely a strong guy, and when you think you've got him in a vulnerable spot, he can counter-hit you any time he wants. You've got to be aware of him being able to do whatever it is … he's very deceptive. Sometimes he tries to make it look like he doesn't see you, but he does. He's definitely a smart player."
The same can be said of Toews, who is one of Red Wings coach Mike Babcock's favorite young stars in the NHL. After coaching Toews in the 2010 Winter Olympics and facing him quite a bit in the regular season the past five years, Babcock has a good handle on what makes the Blackhawks captain such a gem.
"What he does on film is one thing," Babcock said. "That's not what makes him what he is. What he does, how tough he is mentally, how [he is every day], what a great person he is … that's what makes him the conscience of this team and the captain that he is … I like him a lot.
His determination, his will are much like [Henrik Zetterberg] and Datsyuk's."
Maybe one thing separating Toews from Datsyuk is the Russian playmaker's ability to dazzle people with highly skilled plays in the offensive zone -- the kind that often wind up as highlights on YouTube. Even Zetterberg, known to have made a few eye-popping moves himself, doesn't try mimicking Datsyuk -- in games or practices.
"I can't," he said, shaking his head. "It's out of my league. I'll probably break something if I tried, so I'll let him just do his thing."
Toews, who is more straightforward offensively but just as effective, also prefers watching Datsyuk's offensive highlights. He also knows how quickly Datsyuk can turn a defensive play into one of those YouTube moments -- a trait he's tried to emulate since coming into the NHL.
"It looks like he's got a simple play to make, but he comes up with something so creative and that no one would've thought of otherwise," Toews said. "You’ve got to be aware of him. Doesn't matter where the puck is or where you are, you've got to know where he is. He can come out of nowhere and steal the puck from you and make a play … and before you know it, it's in your net."