The move might as well have been done with a wand instead of a hockey stick, a rare moment of on-ice sorcery that elevates a mere highlight to an act of enchantment. In the first period of the Red Wings' second game against the Coyotes on April 16, Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk swiftly skated the puck into the offensive zone. Ahead of him stood Phoenix goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, a countryman who had seen virtually all of Datsyuk's bag of tricks. "He knows my moves very well," says Datsyuk, a Russian teammate of Bryzgalov's at three Olympics, "so I wanted to shock him." With that, Datsyuk tucked his stick back between his skates, stickhandled the puck around his left leg and flicked a wrist shot at the net. Bryzgalov made the initial save, but Datsyuk's teammate Darren Helm flipped home the rebound.
In all Datsyuk added a goal and two more assists as the Wings won 4--3. "The guy is disgusting," said Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle. "It has to be a collective five-guy unit to take care of him, because one or two guys he's going to embarrass." With a loose translation from jockspeak to English, disgusting is a negative-positive term of resigned admiration—see nasty, filthy, sick and bad dude—that simply means the guy does things the rest of the world can't.
Thanks largely to Datsyuk, 32, who leads the Red Wings with six points and the postseason with a +6 rating, Detroit became the only team to sweep its first-round playoff series. Injured and aging, the perennial contenders are still as dangerous as ever, and any team should dread the prospect of facing them. "Quiet confidence" is how Wings general manager Ken Holland describes his team's posture. "We know what it takes. That's what makes Pav so valuable. What do you need—a goal, a penalty kill, a face-off win, a great takeaway, even a hit? Pav does anything at any time as well as anyone in the game."
THE RED WINGS discovered Datsyuk as a teenager quite by accident in 1997, when their chief European scout Hakan Andersson went to Moscow to watch someone else. Instead he saw the 19-year-old Datsyuk, then about 5'7" and 150 pounds—he goes 5'11", 194 now—but with magic hands and hockey sense beyond his years. Andersson convinced Holland to take the wispy sprite with the 171st pick in the 1998 entry draft. Datsyuk was certain his Dynamo club teammates were kidding when they told him he'd been drafted into the NHL. "They showed me the newspaper two days later," Datsyuk says, "And I thought, 'O.K., printing mistake.'"
He also wondered, So now what? Life in his hometown of Sverdlovsk (which has since reclaimed its pre-Soviet name of Yekaterinburg), an industrial city near the Ural Mountains, had been so simple. His family's fourth-floor walk-up overlooked an outdoor rink. He learned to anticipate hockey moves by playing chess several hours a week, and he developed outstanding balance and his ability to control pucks with his skates by playing ice soccer. His mother, Galina, a cook, died when he was 16—his father, Valery, a van driver, passed away a few years later—after she had taught him the humility that defines him on and off the ice. When Pavel met his future wife, Svetlana, at age 18, he was too modest to tell her he was a hockey player. Though Datsyuk has often been praised for his unselfish passing game, he says it was actually born of practicality. "I didn't like to shoot," he says, "because I didn't want to buy a new stick if I broke one."
When Datsyuk showed up for Detroit's rookie camp in 1999, Holland had no idea what he was getting. Other skilled, undersized European players were intent on showing off by making risky offensive plays, but Datsyuk was almost too modest to flaunt his abilities. "He was always high in the offensive zone, very safe," Holland recalls. "I didn't see him as a very dynamic player."
After letting Datsyuk work on his game in Russia for two more years, the Red Wings finally brought him to Detroit in 2001. The Wings won the Cup that season, and Datsyuk knew he had found a home. In an early-season game in L.A., his giveaway had led to a Kings overtime goal. The next day the team was on a bus to the rink when teammate Igor Larionov, a 40-year-old fellow Russian, consoled him. "He expected the coaches to yell at him or something bad," Larionov recalls. "It was my job to tell him it was O.K. 'Learn from it. You'll be better,' I told him."
Datsyuk wasn't a goal scorer right away. He scored just 23 goals over his first two seasons, and the Detroit brass told him to shoot more often. The next year he scored 30. They asked him to work on face-offs, so he'd repeat them after practice as if they were a detention punishment. "He had these natural gifts of an All-Star," recalls captain Nicklas Lidstrom, "but he also worked and worked at all the little things the way a fourth-line guy would. That's why what you see today is one of the best players in the NHL."
Before this season, when he missed 26 games with injuries—19 of them with a broken right hand—Datsyuk had led the Wings in scoring six straight years, winning a second Cup in 2008 and driving opponents nuts. "It seems like you're never really playing against him; you're playing against his shadow," says Canadiens defenseman Hal Gill, who was often assigned to cover Datsyuk during the finals in '08 and '09 when Gill played for the Penguins. "You try to keep him from the net, and the next thing you know he pops out the other side."
Even his more celebrated countryman Alex Ovechkin admits to checking YouTube for documentation of Datsyuk's work. This year for the first time Datsyuk beat out Ovechkin for the Kharlamov Trophy, given annually to the NHL's top Russian player.