For someone with his immense talent level and impact on one of the NHL's perennial powerhouses, Pavel Datsyuk always did things kinda quietly. So nobody was making much of a fuss about the fact that Datsyuk had caught his far more notorious and infamous fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin in the NHL scoring race.
Both were at 39 points through Wednesday which unfortunately is where Datsyuk is going to be stuck for a while, after breaking his hand in Wednesday night's 5-4 overtime win over the Vancouver Canucks.
Datsyuk will miss about a month and it will be interesting to see how the Red Wings respond to this little bit of adversity, given how the victory over the Canucks helped them leapfrog the Dallas Stars and move back into first place overall in the Western Conference.
Last year, injuries kept the Red Wings from going on their usual wire-to-wire run atop the conference - and forced them to have a fabulous post-Olympic surge just to qualify for the playoffs altogether. This year, apart from playing a month without Brian Rafalski, they're been relatively healthy, at least to their core players, but Datsyuk is something special. He leads the league in takeaways; is a clever one-on-one player; extraordinarily responsible defensively; and the anchor of their No. 1 line, whatever it happens to be on any given night.
This year, he's played a lot with Henrik Zetterberg, which is something coach Mike Babcock likes to do - put all the scoring eggs in that one basket, and then use Val Filpulla centre the No. 2 line. Babcock had broken up the combination just before the Canucks' game to better balance the attack and so, it'll be an easy switch, with Zetterberg shifting back to the middle.
It likely also means that Jiri Hudler will see his role increase significantly in the next month, as Detroit embarks on the most challenging part of its schedule - 11 of 14 on the road.
In Thursday's pre-Christmas finale in St. Louis the Red Wings fell 4-3 while Hudler again failed to make an impact on the scoresheet.
Hudler has been a complete dud since returning to the Red Wings from Russia's Continental Hockey League this fall, with just one goal and six assists to show for almost three months of action. Of course, Hudler hasn't been in the line-up every night. Babcock has alternated between carrot and stick trying to get Hudler going.
Some nights, he parks him in the press box. Other times, he is warmly supportive, as he was this past week, when he noted that this is the first time in Hudler's career, at any level, that the puck just won't go in for him. The inference - that it will eventually and now is as good a time as any, with their No. 1 forward out for a long-enough span so that Hudler can find a place among the team's top-six forwards.
Upping the ice-time ante worked for Martin Havlat in Minnesota - when coach Todd Richards increased Havlat's role, he started shooting the lights out. Maybe the same thing, on a smaller scale, will happen in Detroit now.
AROUND THE RINKS
The Blackhawks are expecting both Kane and Marian Hossa back following the Christmas break, but in the meantime, have been muddling along reasonably well without them, three wins in a row following a solid 4-1 victory over a Nashville Predators team that frequently gives them fits; and by getting scoring from unexpected sources. Bryan Bickell, for example, is up to 10 now; and Jack Skille, who is a late developer after being the seventh player chosen in the 2005 entry draft, is up to six .. Probably few that saw him play off and on for four years would guess that Kyle Brodziak is playing a top-six role in the NHL these days (although he did managed 93 points in 70 games for Moose Jaw in his final junior season). But the Minnesota Wild are playing Brodziak with Havlat and Pierre-Marc Bouchard - recently returned from that lengthy concussion - and the unit has found some chemistry. The Wild brought in Brodziak at the June 2009 entry draft for a fourth-round pick, largely on coach Todd Richards' recommendation. Brodziak played for Richards in Wilkes-Barre - the Penguins' affiliate - in the 2006-07 season and produced 56 points in 62 minor-league games ... The curious part about the New York Rangers' unusual run to respectability is that they're competitive and in the top 10 in NHL scoring without much of a contribution from Marian Gaborik. Gaborik was excellent last year, his first in New York, scoring 86 points in 76 games. No one else on the team came close (Vinny Prospal was next at 58 and Olli Jokinen officially third, although most of his 50 points came with Calgary). This year, Gaborik had his usual turn on the IR, but the Rangers didn't miss a beat in his absence. Gaborik has decent numbers again - 19 points in 22 games - which leaves him tied with two others for third on the team's overall scoring list. The two primary differences between this season and last: Better scoring balance, with six players at nine goals or more; and the fact that if the season ended today, they would be in the playoffs after a one-year absence. Under coach John Tortorella, the Rangers have been road warriors again this year (a 12-6-0 record away from Madison Square Gardens), but have struggled at home (8-8-1), same as they did last season, when they managed just 42 points in 41 games, tied with the Leafs and the Bruins for the fourth-worst mark in the league. This is more than just a statistical blip at this stage - clearly, they need to change something in their game-day preparations so that home-ice advantage is something real and tangible, rather than just an abstract concept that everybody else can enjoy.
Christmas is a good time to empty the notebook, or indulge in the 21st century equivalent to emptying a notebook, which is to check the ongoing 'ideas' list for stories that - for one reason or another - never actually got written this fall.
The top entry on that list was the profile I intended to do of Drew Doughty, the Los Angeles Kings' defenceman, who had a pretty spectacular calendar 2010, given how - against long odds - he cracked the roster for Canada's men's Olympic hockey team; and then in Vancouver, ranked right there with Dustin Keith, as one of the two primary defenders in the gold-medal victory.
Statistically, Doughty's numbers this year probably won't compare to the 59 points he put up last year, good for third in the league. That's partly a function of the six games he missed earlier in the season as a result of a concussion on an unpenalized late hit from the Carolina Hurricanes' Erik Cole; and partly because of the way teams are overplaying him on the Kings' power play this year. Recently, I saw Jim Fox, the Kings' colour analyst, who sees every minute of Doughty's play, and asked him what kind of a year he'd been having. Spectacular, was the reply. Fox couldn't say enough about what Doughty's meant to a team that started fast, cooled off, but has been finding its stride again lately. Doughty is averaging 25:18 minutes of playing time every night; and along with Jack Johnson's year-over-year improvement, put L.A. in the top ranks of teams to watch in 2011.
What I particularly like about Doughty is his supreme confidence with the puck, a characteristic that some players never get and Doughty had as a teenager, playing a regular shift in the NHL. It's what Keith was marveling about when I asked him about it earlier this year.
"He's so calm with the puck and so confident," said Keith. "Those are two attributes that as a defenceman, you really want to have - the confidence to carry the puck up and make the plays in your own zone when you have pressure on. He's great at that. Obviously, he's a young guy. His offensive game is already there - and he keeps getting better defensively too. What can you say? He's already a Norris Trophy finalist at the age of 20. Pretty incredible."
As far as that precociousness goes, Keith saw some parallels between Doughty and fellow Blackhawks' Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
"Some guys are just able to mature faster than others, for whatever reason. At 20, he's already there. I know I wasn't (at that age). That's pretty impressive."