Under a minute remained in the Detroit Red Wings’ season. The San Jose Sharks, up 3-2 in the third period of Game 7, were resisting another possible comeback. Having already overturned a 3-0 deficit, the Red Wings were ready to claw back into one last game.
Pavel Datsyuk scored minutes earlier to bring the Red Wings to within a goal of tying the crucial contest. Naturally, he’d be the one to lead the last-gasp charge from his own zone, carrying the puck just as he had carried his team the entire playoffs.
He streaked down the left side of the ice and ripped a shot at Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi. Catching the puck with his glove, Niemi jerked back as if he had been hit by a rifle blast.
But there was no siren. The shot was saved. The faceoff was lost and the puck cleared. The clock expired.
Niemi deprived the Red Wings of a historic comeback. More importantly, he ended what could’ve been one of the best all-around playoff performances in years.
For one week in May, though, Datsyuk had the stage to himself.
He of many accolades, Sidney Crosby, watched his Pittsburgh Penguins lose in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Crosby played as much hockey as the pope in that series, and unless Benedict XVI does sermons on ice, that’s none.
Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals were swept by those same Lightning a week later. The best players of the game were out, but Datsyuk was still in, albeit down 3-0 in the series. Datsyuk’s team could’ve been eliminated two days after Ovechkin’s, but the Red Wings earned the right to play four more games. And during those games, the former sixth-round pick made an emphatic argument: that he’s better than Crosby and Ovechkin.
As of May 18, Datsyuk had still scored more points per game in the postseason (1.36) than any other player who has participated in 10 or more matches. He passed pucks with pinpoint precision. He bedazzled audiences and goalies alike in ways not seen since Bewitched hit the airwaves.
Never mind the number of points Datsyuk has accumulated in the post-lockout era. Ovechkin and Crosby won the Art Ross and Hart trophies; Datsyuk didn’t. They’ve eclipsed 100 points; Datsyuk hasn’t.
So what does the 32-year-old Red Wing have that they don’t? Two Stanley Cup rings, threeSelke trophies as the game’s best defensive forward and four Lady Byng trophies as the league’s most gentlemanly player.
Being a gentleman isn’t supposed to mean anything in the NHL. The Lady Byng has been typecast as a sorry excuse for an award — hockey players aren’t supposed to be nice. But for Datsyuk, every extra minute spent outside the penalty box was and has always been put to good use.
His career plus-187 rating is higher than his total number of penalty minutes (172), a feat not even paralleled by teammate and legendary defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom. Crosby and Ovechkin won’t be able to say that by the time they reach Datsyuk’s age.
Datsyuk can score goals, rack up points at a pace well above a point per game, play defensive and disciplined hockey — and threaten opponents from any spot on the ice (i.e.: 144 takeaways in the 2007-08 regular season, 58 more than the league’s second-most).
If he isn’t the complete player, no one is.
Justin Bourne, a hockey player turned writer, suggested on Puck Daddy that Datsyuk is “the toughest player in the NHL to defend because of the breadth of his arsenal,and his ability to conceal which weapon he’s going to use next. Defensemen are always guessing.”
Crosby and Ovechkin have highlight archives of their own. Plenty of them. But when there’s an adjective that describes a play by this particular Russian center — a Datsyukian deke, for example — one knows there are simply too many highlight clips to view.
Like any debate about players in team sports, though, there is never a correct answer. Lionel Messi is regarded by most as the best soccer player in the world until fans rebut with an argument for Cristiano Ronaldo. Jerry Rice was named the greatest NFL player of all time, but some contest that he wasn’t even the greatest San Francisco 49er ever. Los Angeles Lakersstar Kobe Bryant has won five NBA Championships, yet others think LeBron James is more talented.
In the NHL, Ovechkin should not be considered the best before any player in the league until he wins a Stanley Cup. That seems to be the just way to measure a player’s greatness; if not slightly cruel.
Datsyuk and Crosby, then, vie for the artificial title — because the title is artificial, a creation by fans and experts to rate the esteemed puckmen.
“If he isn’t the best player in the world, he’s got to be in the top three,” Sharks coach ToddMcLellan said of Datsyuk to ESPN.com in the run-up to Game 7.
Even though the Red Wings departed from the 2011 playoffs, Datsyuk had enough time to reassert himself as a star in the league. In just five days of playoff hockey without the presence of either Crosby or Ovechkin, Datsyuk captured the imagination of every person around the game.
Is Mr. Datsyuk the best in the world? This needs to be asked more often.