Datsyuk returns ... and then some
DETROIT -- By the time Evgeni Malkin dusted himself off after being crushed by a bone-crunching hit in the first period Saturday night, the Stanley Cup finals had already taken yet another turn. And a dramatic one at that.
Fellow Hart Trophy nominee Pavel Datsyuk had announced his return.
Welcome back, No. 13.
"What a huge lift," Cleary said after Detroit's 5-0 whitewashing of the Pittsburgh Penguins. "He's an MVP candidate. What if you took [Evgeni] Malkin out of their lineup? Pav was great tonight with the puck, made a lot of plays, he was physical -- played a tremendous game. He looked like he didn't miss a beat. He made a great play on my goal, he was just great all night."
The Wings survived without Datsyuk, but they certainly didn't thrive. They were 4-3 during his seven-game absence with a foot injury, getting key contributions on different nights from other players as everyone on the roster tried to step up and fill the gap. But after back-to-back losses to the Penguins in the Cup finals, it was clear they needed him back.
"Seven games is enough," said Cleary. "It was great to have him back, not only on the ice, but also his demeanor and his leadership off the ice. I could see it in the guys' eyes. When we knew he was playing, it was a huge lift."
Datsyuk isn't just a Hart Trophy nominee; he is also up for the Selke Trophy. He does it all for this team. He had two assists on the night with a plus-2 rating in 17:38 of ice time and ranked third on the team with four hits.
"This guy's one of the best players in the world, both offensively and defensively," said Wings coach Mike Babcock. "Just makes the team more comfortable. We needed plays, and suddenly we relaxed and we made plays.
"We've been able to have success, but it's been much harder, obviously, without him. And you have to learn to win a different way and find a way. I've been very impressed with our guys finding a way. We bought time so he can come back, and ideally he can help us get over the top."
The Red Wings are one win away from their second consecutive Stanley Cup championship and suddenly that much-talked about finals schedule -- which the Wings both privately and publicly griped about -- is now their best friend. Two days off before Game 6 and two more days off, if necessary, before Friday's Game 7.
A perfect setup for Datsyuk, who can use the extra rest.
"Oh, we rushed him back, believe me," said Babcock. "If this was a regular season, he wouldn't be playing. But you know, after a while, what do you save him for? All there is, is summer. Everyone can get better in the summer.
"We're doing everything we can to try to win this. People always talk about having a shot to win, you never have a shot to win this thing until you've won three games," Babcock added. "We've won three games in the final. We have a legitimate chance. [Datsyuk] just gives us that much more confidence and that much more calm and that much more belief in the opportunity we have."
Datsyuk would not estimate what percentage he's at, but said, "How much I have, I try to play with this."
"It's a little bit hard to start with the final series when I miss a couple of games," added Datsyuk. "But I'm ready to play more, especially with Hank. Lots of confidence, I feel better and better."
Ah yes, Hank. That was a smart way for Babcock to ease Datsyuk back into the most intense level of hockey of the year, putting him with his longtime sidekick, Henrik Zetterberg.
"I got the hint a few days ago that we might end up together," said Zetterberg, who was terrific Saturday night after looking fatigued in Game 4. "You know, it felt good. It was fun to have him by my side again. He makes a lot of good plays. He holds on to the puck and he creates a lot of room for his linemates. So it was fun to see him out there and we're all glad he's back."
They played against Sidney Crosby's line most of the night and you can't be totally surprised No. 87 was shut out while registering only one shot on goal. Try getting the puck away from the Zetterberg/Datsyuk combo. Good luck.
Datsyuk's hit on Malkin in the first period was a welcome sight for the Wings, who have had trouble containing the Pittsburgh superstar.
"If you remember correctly last year in the playoffs, I think Pav was our leading finish check guy," said Babcock. "He can run over the top of you. Obviously, he isn't skating or having the stability that he normally does, but it was a great finished check. We haven't been able to get many on Malkin in the series, so it was good."
Datsyuk's return also has the domino effect on a lineup that suddenly becomes that much deeper, if possible. Suddenly, Tomas Holmstrom becomes a bottom-six forward. Suddenly, Detroit's second line has Johan Franzen on it because he was bumped down by Datsyuk. You know, that same Franzen who has 12 goals and 11 assists in these playoffs. The bottom two lines on Saturday had Darren Helm between Holmstrom and Mikael Samuelsson and Kris Draper with Jiri Hudler and Kirk Maltby. Scary.
"You don't have to rely on one or two lines to produce," Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom said of Datsyuk's return. "You get four lines going. It's key having that kind of depth."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.