Defensive forwards center stage in NHL playoffs
Posted at: 05/18/2013 3:06 PM
By JAY COHEN
(AP) CHICAGO - Pavel Datsyuk is one of the NHL’s most feared scorers, a wizard with the puck who is equally adept at setting up his teammates for easy plays. Jonathan Toews has at least 23 goals in each of his six seasons in the league, and Patrice Bergeron is one of the top offensive threats for one of the league’s best teams.
If you want to stop a Datsyuk, Toews or Bergeron, it sure helps to have a Datsyuk, Toews or Bergeron.
The three finalists for the Frank J. Selke Trophy for the NHL’s best defensive forward are still alive in the playoffs, and it’s no coincidence. The league’s top teams count on their forwards to come back and pressure the opponent’s top scorers, not only for defensive purposes but also to create chances on the other end.
"You need those kind of players to win, to be successful. Because you’re going to have times, usually half the time in your shift you’re going to be in your own end or you’re going to have to be defending," said Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, a former NHL defenseman, "and knowing where you have to go and coming up with loose pucks or forcing these guys to make indirect plays where you get the puck back, there’s a skill involved there and there’s some work that’s involved."
Datsyuk of the Red Wings and Toews of the Blackhawks will be back on the ice when Chicago hosts Detroit in Game 2 of their second-round playoff series on Saturday afternoon. Bergeron will try to help the Bruins to a 2-0 lead against the New York Rangers when their series resumes on Sunday.
The Blackhawks used a dominant final two periods to beat the Red Wings 4-1 on Wednesday night, shutting down Detroit’s leading trio of Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen. Datsyuk played more than 21 minutes, but was held without a point and did not attempt a shot after he had two goals and five assists in the first round against Anaheim.
"He’s going to be a top player in this series. We know that. They know that," forward Patrick Sharp said after Chicago practiced on Friday. "It’s just hopefully we can contain him in some way."
Datsyuk had 15 goals and 34 assists in 47 games this season, helping Detroit reach the playoffs for the 22nd straight season. The three-time Selke winner also tied Toews for the NHL lead with 56 takeaways and won 55 percent of his faceoffs.
The 34-year-old Russian center, who was selected in the sixth round of the 1998 draft, is way more than just an offensive wizard.
"He can come out of nowhere and steal the puck from you and make a play, and before you know it, it’s in your net," Toews said. "He’s as skilled as they come on both sides of the puck and obviously a tough guy. You’ve got to go out there and try to outwork him every shift, because it’s tough to outclass him any other way."
Toews is coming off another solid season, when he tied Patrick Kane for the team lead with 23 goals and also contributed 25 assists in 47 games. The captain also had career-high plus-28 rating as Chicago captured the Presidents’ Trophy awarded to the team with the most points in the regular season.
"We play same type of game," Datsyuk said. "We fight every year against each other. It’s not easy. When a good player plays against a good player every time they make each other better."
While Datsyuk and Toews are squaring off in the Western Conference semifinals, Bergeron is trying to get Boston back to the East final for the first since it won the Stanley Cup in 2011. The Bruins lost to Washington in the first round a year ago.
Bergeron, who won the Selke award last season, was successful on an NHL-best 62.1 percent of his faceoffs this year and also had 10 goals and 22 assists. He then had the tying and winning goals in Boston’s dramatic overtime victory against Toronto in Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs.
"You get the same thing out of him night after night," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "What I mean by the same thing is, you’ll never, ever question his effort, and never question his commitment. Whether he has a good game, a great game, or an average game, you’re always going to be able to rely on him."
While Datsyuk, Toews or Bergeron are among the best in the league, two-way play is a requirement for forwards in today’s NHL. Marian Hossa, Toews’ teammate, is regarded for his defensive skill, and Mike Richards of defending champion Los Angeles also is a factor in the Kings’ end.
It’s hard to get this far in the postseason without a group of forwards who are willing to pitch in on defense.
"I’ve had the good fortune to coach all three of them," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said, referring to Datsyuk, Toews and Bergeron. "They’re good, good men, and they play without the puck and they help you win at the playoffs."
AP Sports Writers Larry Lage and Jimmy Golen contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)