PITTSBURGH – Nobody would come out and say Pavel Datsyuk will definitely play in Game 4, but ask yourself: If he isn’t going to play, would the Red Wings have asked him to perform a comedy routine for the media?
“Yeah, I’m healthy now,” Datsyuk said Wednesday, after participating in a full practice. (He was one of the last Wings to leave the ice.) “But we’ll make tomorrow a game decision. A game decision.”
He turned to the moderator.
“That’s it?” he asked, as though the news conference was over.
Then Datsyuk trotted out a couple of lines as if he’d been refining them back in Russia, on the original Borscht Belt.
Is it difficult to sit rather than play?
“Oh, I tell you, just this is not fun to watch,” he said. “I take in lots of beer.”
If he plays, how much ice time will he get?
“The game is 60 minutes,” he said. “I hope I play 60 minutes.”
OK, so he is in no danger of stealing Chris Rock’s career. But for years, Datsyuk has acted like he wished there were a shorter way to say “no comment.”
He is naturally shy, and is not a native English speaker. A Datsyuk who smiles and cracks jokes to a roomful of reporters can only be good for the Wings.
A healthy, loose Datsyuk can play a huge role in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Wings’ regular-season scoring leader has not been healthy in two weeks and has not been loose in four.
Datsyuk injured his foot blocking a shot against Chicago May 19. At least, that’s the official word. It is also possible that he had a collapsed lung and a double eye transplant. NHL playoff injury reports are 70 percent secrets and 30 percent lies.
The only sure thing is that Datsyuk wants to play as much as any Wing. The NHL’s Russian stars often deal with the stigma that they don’t care enough. If anything, Datsyuk cares too much.
People in the Wings’ organization say Datsyuk puts intense pressure on himself to score. This sounds selfish – numbers have often provided athletes with self-gratification, regardless of whether their team won. But with Datsyuk, it’s different. He isn’t putting his numbers ahead of winning.
He wants his numbers to contribute to winning. He knows he has a special talent to score, and when he doesn’t use that talent, he feels like he let his teammates down.
This may explain why he has struggled more in the playoffs than a player of his caliber should – he is too hard on himself. He famously had a long goal-less streak early in his career, which he said he corrected simply by thinking less and shooting more.
Datsyuk has only one goal and six assists in 13 playoff games this spring, and it seems like his struggles have caused him to press again. He usually plays on a line with Marian Hossa (who has admitted to pressing himself) and Tomas Holmstrom (who needs to feed off of more creative players to be effective), and that line has not been as good as it could be.
Still, Datsyuk should boost the Wings even if he doesn’t score. He is an exceptional penalty killer and can take some of the pressure off Henrik Zetterberg, the Wings’ other two-way star. Zetterberg logged more than 24 minutes against Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, his most ice time of any regular-season game and these playoffs.
Datsyuk gives coach Mike Babcock another serious defensive weapon. If nothing else, he should help on face-offs, and the Penguins can’t score if they don’t have the puck.
Datsyuk is too talented, and too motivated, to be invisible for long. When he made his joke about taking in lots of beer, goalie Chris Osgood, who was sitting next to Datsyuk, didn’t even hear him. Osgood, who is no stranger to jokes or beers, had to ask what he’d said afterward.
Pay close attention to that guy, Chris. He might be the difference in this series.