By Dave Waddell -
Coach Mike Babcock mused recently that the Detroit Red Wings aren’t as pretty to watch as they used to be.
There’s no arguing with that observation in general, but Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk certainly have been this season.
In this season of transition, one shudders to think how ugly it would be in Detroit had the duo not been performing at such a high level. Both players are averaging over a point per game.
Zetterberg has been up among the league leaders in the scoring race with five goals and 20 points in his first 14 games. Datsyuk’s all-around game has been superlative of late with seven goals and 16 points in 14 games.
Between them, Datsyuk and Zetterberg have scored 12 of the team’s 40 goals and been involved in the majority of those they haven’t potted themselves.
If you throw in Zetterberg’s winger, Damien Brunner and his seven tallies, that’s one short of half of the Wings’ offensive output.
“I don’t think it’s something I thought I had to do,” said Zetterberg of his increased offensive output. “I just go in and play and the puck’s been bouncing my way.
“Brunno (Brunner) and Mule (Johan Franzen) have done a good job and of course the power play has been getting better. That helps.”
With Franzen and his nine points now on the injured reserve list with a strained hip flexor muscle, the Wings most productive line has been broken up for now.
It doesn’t help that Todd Bertuzzi and Darren Helm are out for the foreseeable future with back ailments while Mikael Samuelsson is just getting his season started after being plagued by a sore groin since training camp.
That makes a load that’s even heavier for Detroit’s dynamic duo.
Of late, even Datsyuk has been hampered by the injury bug as a sore shoulder forced him to miss a game before returning for a two-point performance Feb. 17 against Minnesota.
Zetterberg has been around the league long enough to know you enjoy the points while they’re piling up because the ‘Hockey Gods’ have a way of balancing out the good and the bad for even the NHL’s top players.
“You just got to keep going,” Zetterberg said. “I know it won’t last forever.
“You will have slumps, when you’re not scoring and getting points. You better be happy when they’re coming.”
Babcock sees his two stars from a slightly different perspective than most. While fans have been mesmerized by their eye-catching skills, it’s their will to compete that provides the opportunities to be the great showmen they are.
“Watch Pavel Datsyuk play and you talk about how skilled he is,” Babcock said.
“When I watch Pavel Datsyuk play, all I think about is how much will he has and how determined he is.
“When I watch Zetterberg he’s the energizer bunny. He just keeps coming.
“He doesn’t care who it is or who he’s playing.”
Examples of those qualities appear in different ways for each player.
In Datsyuk’s case, it’s his absolute fearlessness to weave through traffic despite the dangers of getting flattened by the giants that patrol the dangerous ice on the inside.
Toughness is a often-discussed term in hockey with a multitude of definitions, but Datsyuk gave one such definition recently after he got crushed by Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty as he tried to slice his way to the net.
On his next shift, 90 second later, there was Datsyuk going right back to the same space and this time roofing a highlight reel goal.
“You know, Pav has been doing it all year for us, as he has year after year,” Wings’ defenseman Niklas Kronwall said after watching Datsyuk bounce back from the Doughty hit.
“It doesn’t matter if he gets hit, though it rarely happens because he’s so smart. Tonight Doughty was able to find him, but Pavel just got up and kept playing his game.”
The qualities that make Zetterberg a world-class player are best exemplified when Babcock can create a match-up that puts the splendid Swede under the microscope.
No example of that is better than the wonderful battles he wages with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby. Zetterberg admits he lives for such assignments.
Though Crosby has matured greatly since their Stanley Cup Finals’ battles of 2008 and 2009, the young superstar couldn’t contain his disdain and frustration over Zetterberg’s constant attentions.
No one in the NHL does a better job one-on-one against Sid the Kid than the Wings’ center. While the teams split the cup triumphs, Zetterberg also hoisted a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and outscored Crosby over the two series.
“The best of the best are ultra-competitive and they bring it every single day,” Babcock said. “They don’t have it every day, but they bring it. Those guys are our best players and they drive our bus.
“They have to play well for us and they are. You don’t have to get them started or beg them to play.
“They come to play every night.”