Pavel Datsyuk was standing in the tunnel of Joe Louis Arena on Saturday night, still in his sweats after his return to the playoffs in Game 5, when two arms encircled his neck from behind.
He didn’t even turn around. He kept smiling.
“Uh, that’s Gordie Howe,” I said.
“I know,” Datsyuk said. “I feel him.”
Now, Datsyuk sometimes skates like he has eyes in the back of his head, but I didn’t know he actually, you know, had eyes in the back of his head. Then again, Saturday night, anything might have been possible. The kid was finally back in the picture, after 2 1/2 weeks out with an injury that has been called his foot, has been rumored to be his hip and might as well be his ear.
All anyone in Detroit really cares about is this: With the season down to its last possible two games, Datsyuk is in skates.
“How did you feel out there?” I asked him.
“He felt good,” Gordie finished.
You see? Everyone wants to help the guy. Get him healthy. Finish his sentences. Saturday night, Pavel said, his Red Wings teammates were yelling, “Move your feet! Move your feet!” presumably so that the Penguins couldn’t target them.
Dat’s the ticket. A jolt of instant energy
“I think I said this earlier,” coach Mike Babcock answered when asked about Datsyuk’s return. Imagine if the Penguins “played the series without Malkin or Crosby and they suddenly came back. Â
“This guy’s one of the best players in the world.”
It’s a good point. And a credit to the Wings that Datsyuk disappeared one day and they just went on – one game, two, three, four. … It’s a little like your lead guitar player missing a song, then another, then another. At some point, you are simply not the same band.
So the Wings became what they had to become – more reliant on third- and fourth-line guys for scoring, deeper into the roster for defense, desperate for great goaltending – and they got to within two victories of the Stanley Cup that way, all that without Datsyuk, which is like tying a hand behind your back.
And it was no fun for him, either.
“Sitting and watching the game, very tough, especially when it’s the finals,” he said. “I’m so nervous, watching in locker room, I go, do treatment, watch, get nervous.
He sighed. “No fun.”
Datsyuk’s return was way more enjoyable. In typical hockey fashion, no one introduced him, no announcer called his name, he just came over the boards a minute or so into the game – and the fans picked out his No. 13 and began to roar. Moments later, they were cheering “DAT-SOOK! DAT-SOOK!”
“That was special,” he said. “I feel energy in building. In Pittsburgh, lots of energy that way, but here lots of energy this way.”
Well. You know what he means.
Dat’s the ticket. Confidence in one and other
Datsyuk still won’t say the full nature of his injury, although he admitted that “pushing off” was the litmus test for his return, and certain moves and turns were crucial in knowing he was ready.
Of course, the calendar had something to do with it as well. As Babcock said Saturday, “Everybody can get better in the summer.” They needed Datsyuk now.
He’s getting three days to recover from nearly 18 minutes of ice time. That should help. But his presence makes the biggest difference. Confidence comes not just from what your teammates do but by what you believe they can do – and the Wings are generally dazzled by Datsyuk.
When he finished a check on Evgeni Malkin (not an easy guy to pin down), then took a great pass from Brian Rafalski, calmly skated down the center, and slid the puck to Dan Cleary for the night’s first goal – well, the idea of that lives on long after the red light stops flashing.
So, finally, no matter how grizzled, bearded or tired they looked, the Wings line up with all their big weapons, ready for 60 minutes at full strength against the Penguins. One victory needed. Two chances to get it. Datsyuk has Gordie Howe behind him, the ice in front of him, and a smile all over him. Dat’s the ticket. We’ll see if destiny punches it.
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).