DETROIT – When you get a Hart Trophy finalist and one of the best players on the planet back into the lineup after seven games, there’s a natural tendency to lean on him a little.
But nobody knows with any degree of certainty how effective Pavel Datsyuk will be when he makes his return to the Detroit Red Wings for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final.
If you didn’t know any better, you might get the impression that Datsyuk is being counted upon to rescue Michigan’s slumping economy. Datsyuk will control the puck so much that the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to feel like hockey’s Washington Generals. He’ll help on the power play; he’ll help on the penalty kill. He’ll neutralize Sidney Crosby and he’ll provide the kind of two-way play that wins Stanley Cups.
But is there a danger in relying too much on a player who hasn’t played a meaningful game since Game 3 of the Western Conference final and still probably isn’t 100 percent healthy?
“Maybe for you (media) guys there is, but there isn’t in our room,” said Red Wings GM Ken Holland. “We know he hasn’t played in two weeks.”
In fact, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, perhaps playing a few mind games, did his best to play down Datsyuk’s return after the morning skate.
“He seems that he’s tolerating it now,” Babcock said. “I watched him in the skate…he doesn’t look like Pavel.”
Part of the reason the Red Wings were hoping to get Datsyuk back in for Game 4 was that they realized he might need a game or two to work off the rust from his injury and if that were the case, he’d be back to his old self in time for Game 6. They don’t exactly have that luxury at the moment, but you’re also dealing with a top player in Datsyuk so that curve might be drastically reduced.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said after the morning skate he would likely start Datsyuk on the wing to see how he adjusts to the level of play. After all, Datsyuk isn’t returning for a game in the middle of January against Nashville, he’s coming back at a crucial point in the Stanley Cup final. And you can bet that more than one Penguin has taken note that it’s Datsyuk’s right foot that was injured and may accidentally place their sticks in that area a couple of times early in the game.
“We’re going to start him (on the wing) and we’re going to see how he does,” Babcock said. “If he looks like himself, he’ll be in the middle.”
So, if Datsyuk isn’t playing center by the end of the first period, we’ll know how well he’s playing. But the smart money is on Datsyuk returning to form sooner rather than later. Perhaps he won’t be Hart Trophy good, but Datsyuk at less than 100 percent is far superior to most players in the league when they’re at their best.
“He’s so strong on his stick,” said Red Wings center Kris Draper. “Playing keep away with him in practice is pretty one-sided. He’s obviously got a very strong lower body and he uses that to his advantage when he gets the puck.”
The Penguins were ready to face Datsyuk in Game 4 and are preparing for him in Game 5.
“You’re aware of certain players’ skill sets and what they do and what they do well,” said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. “If you have Dan Bylsma and Pavel Datsyuk on the half boards, you’re going to worry a little more about No. 13. We’ve been preparing for him like he’s going to play for a couple of games now, so we’ll be ready for what he brings and hopefully keep him in check.”
THN is on the road following the Stanley Cup final and will file daily reports until a champion is crowned. To read other entries, click HERE. Also, check out THN.com’s regular video roundtable, the THN.com Shootout for updates from both Detroit and Pittsburgh.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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