DETROIT - On one of his first shifts in two-plus weeks, Pavel Datsyuk put Evgeni Malkin on his back and beautifully set up a teammate.
It was hardly a coincidence that the Detroit Red Wings played their best game of the Stanley Cup finals as Datsyuk made his debut in the series, assisting on two goals and being on the ice for another score in a 5-0 win that gave the defending champions a 3-2 lead in the series.
“This guy’s one of the best players in the world both offensively and defensively,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. “Just makes the team more comfortable. We need plays, and suddenly we relaxed and we made plays.
“We bought time so he can come back, and ideally he can help us get over the top.”
Game 6 is at Pittsburgh on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET on NBC)
Datsyuk missed seven games with a foot injury after blocking a shot against the Chicago Blackhawks on May 19 in the Western Conference finals.
The Red Wings won two games against Chicago and opened the Stanley Cup finals with a pair of victories without the NHL MVP finalist. After almost getting him back for Game 4, he was healthy enough to be on the ice for 17-plus minutes in Game 5 — often with Henrik Zetterberg.
“When I play more, I’m more comfortable,” the Russian said. “But ready to play more, especially with Hank. Lots of confidence, I feel better and better.”
Datsyuk’s instantly made the Red Wings better, calmly skating up the middle and feeding the puck to Dan Cleary to start the scoring 13:32 into the game.
He was on the ice for the second goal and played a part in the third, skating to the front of the net and drawing a slashing penalty from Sergei Gonchar.
Detroit took advantage with its first of three power-play goals in the third period to build its 5-0 lead.
Datsyuk directly played a part in the second score with an extra skater, winning a faceoff and making a cross-ice pass to Brian Rafalski for his second assist of the night.
“He obviously wasn’t full 100-percent Pavel Datsyuk, but I’ll take 85 percent of Pavel Datsyuk over 100 percent of most other guys,” Rafalski said. “His vision is obviously very good, and his ability to handle the puck.”
Datsyuk and the Red Wings didn’t seem to want to make much of a fuss out of the slashing call against Max Talbot, who was called for penalty after hacking at his skates.
“I went for the puck and his foot was there,” Talbot insisted.
Datsyuk, who scored 97 points this season, showed Malkin early in the game why he’s a candidate to win the award for being the NHL’s best defensive forward for the second straight year.
“If you remember correctly last year in the playoffs, I think Pav was our leading finish check guy,” Babcock said. “He can run over top of you. Obviously he isn’t skating or having the stability that he normally does, but it was a great finish check.
“We haven’t been able to get many on Malkin in the series, so it was good.”
Watch Live: Boston looks to finish the job and eliminate New York with a win in Game 5. Can the Rangers hold off the Bruins once again?
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