DETROIT (AP) Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk had a chance to develop slowly, playing behind and learning from Detroit Red Wings stars such as Steve Yzerman.
“It helped me when I got here, right away I played with good players,” Zetterberg said Saturday. “They kind of just eased me in.”
The Chicago Blackhawks couldn’t afford to do the same with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, banking on them to contribute when they made their NHL debuts last season as teenagers.
In their second season, it paid off for the proud-again franchise.
Kane and Toews led Chicago to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 – second in 11 seasons – and into the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1995.
“Just to be a part of the resurgence of the franchise the past couple years, it’s been a hell of a ride,” Kane said after arriving in Detroit, the site of Game 1 on Sunday afternoon.
Zetterberg and Datsyuk were late-round picks, drafted 210th and 171st overall respectively, and were groomed to be stars of the future.
Datsyuk was a third-line center under coach Scotty Bowman, now a consultant for the Blackhawks, as a 23-year-old rookie when the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup seven years ago. Zetterberg’s production as a 22-year-old rookie the next season, scoring 22 goals, was simply a bonus.
“You saw the next generation coming in, blooming right in front of you and growing up and turning into great hockey players,” Detroit forward Kris Draper recalled. “These guys turned into dominant, two-way hockey players.”
Kane and Toews were taken first and third overall in the 2007 and 2006 drafts, respectively, and were leaned on right away.
“They’re handling it pretty good,” Draper joked. “With Toews being named captain, it’s a credit to his character. And look at what Kane did with a chance to eliminate a hockey team, he scored three goals against Vancouver.
“In these playoffs, they’ve made huge steps and that’s when you get the label of a great hockey player.”
Datsyuk struggled to find success early in his career in the playoffs, going without a goal in the 2003, ’04 and ’06 playoffs leading to Detroit’s early exits, but scored 18 times in the previous two postseasons.
A sensational regular season this year led to him being a finalist for the league’s MVP, top defensive forward and sportsmanship trophies. But the Russian’s jaw-dropping plays are become a distant memory because he hasn’t scored in the past nine games.
“It’s a little bit to worry about,” Datsyuk said. “But we win.”
Zetterberg was the MVP of the 2008 playoffs after tying a franchise record with 13 goals and helping Detroit hoist the Stanley Cup. The Swede has approached that pace by scoring six times in 11 postseason games.
Kane of Buffalo, N.Y., was the NHL’s Rookie of the Year last season and Toews of Winnipeg, Manitoba, finished third in voting for the Calder Trophy.
Both avoided a sophomore slump.
Toews had a team-high 34 goals during the regular season and has 10 points in 12 postseason games. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Kane had 70 points this season and has eight goals in the playoffs.
“There’s nothing similar about them at all,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. “Toews is the guy you need for your franchise because he’s a guy that’s gonna play two ways. He’s the guy that’s going to will your team to success.
“Kane is the guy who can stick handle in a phone booth.”
Kane, though, knows it will be difficult to make dazzling plays with the puck dancing on both sides of his stick against Detroit.
The Red Wings’ defense is led by six-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom, who taught Kane a thing or two early in his career.
“I remember I had a shift where I was coming down, tried to chip it by him, he knocked it out the air,” Kane recalled. “I got the puck the same shift again, tried to chip it by him again, he knocked it out of the air again.”
While experience is clearly on the Red Wings’ side, they’re not the only team that likes its chances in the Western Conference finals.
“There’s an honor to play against a team like that and hopefully be the team that knocks them off,” Toews said. “It’s a huge challenge and a huge opportunity that we’re excited about.
“In a lot of ways, pressure is on them. We’re just going to go out there and play and have fun and let loose.”