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Blackhawks’ Toews, Red Wings’ Datsyuk are two of a kind

Updated: May 17, 2013 3:41PM

Detroit coach Mike Babock was asked about the talented two-way center and all the thing he does — in the offensive zone, in the defensive zone, at the faceoff dot, on special teams. And Babcock, an eloquent but occasionally grouchy sort, suddenly began to gush like a fanboy.

“What he does on film is one thing, but that’s not what makes him what he is,” Babcock said. “How tough he is mentally, how [good he is] every day, what a great person he is — that’s what makes him the conscience of this team, the captain that he is. I like him a lot.”

He was talking about Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews. He could have been talking about his own brilliantly talented two-way center and alternate captain, Pavel Datsyuk.

The hate in this Western Conference semifinal is reserved for the 300-level at the United Center. In the dressing rooms, there’s nothing but respect and admiration between the Hawks and the Red Wings, particularly when it comes to the two centers of attention.

They were held relatively in check in the Hawks’ 4-1 Game 1 victory — Toews had an assist, Datsyuk was held without a shot — but everyone on both sides knows the series could turn on the game-changing skills of the two Selke Trophy finalists.

Toews is the prototype, the sturdy 6-2, 210-pounder with unnatural strength with the puck, and an uncanny awareness without it. Offensively, he can occasionally approach Patrick Kane levels with his shiftiness, stickwork and scoring ability. Defensively, he’s unmatched in his preparation, positioning and proficiency.

Except maybe by Datsyuk. Three inches shorter and 13 pounds lighter than Toews, Datsyuk doesn’t look the part. He doesn’t have the size that Toews has, but he’s every bit as strong on the puck, every bit as effective in his own zone, every bit as savvy in all facets of the game.

And offensively? Even Kane — with all his dekes and pinpoint shots and spin-o-ramas — can only shake his head at what Dastyuk can do on the ice, simply saying “He makes you look stupid.”

“You’ve got to be aware of him — it doesn’t matter where the puck is or where you are, you’ve got to know where he is,” Toews said. “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. He’s as skilled as they come on both sides of the puck. You’ve got to go out there and try to outwork him every shift. It’s tough to outclass him any other way.”

Few players value and see the beauty in defensive play as much as Toews does. But when he watches film of Datsyuk, it’s not the sneaky steals and poke checks he’s looking for. Like any other hockey fan, it’s the jaw-dropping highlight-reel maneuvers.

“It looks like he’s got a simple play to make, but he comes up with something so creative and different that no one would have ever thought of,” Toews said. “It’s pretty amazing, the stuff he can do physically out there. And most guys like that, who even come close to that skill level, they don’t work as hard as he does defensively. It’s pretty amazing to watch him play.”

The feeling is mutual. Datsyuk, an 11th-year Russian pro and six-time Selke finalist, has seen the 25-year-old Toews “grow up” and get better year after year, earning his place alongside Datsyuk as one of the world’s top two-way players.

“We play the same type of game and we fight every year by year against each other,” Datsyuk said. “It’s not easy. [But] when good players play against good players every time, they make each other better.”

Of course, Toews and Datsyuk aren’t the only two-way standouts in this series. Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg is built in the same mold, as is Hawks winger Marian Hossa. Hawks rookie Brandon Saad, who’s had the privilege of skating on a line with both Toews and Hossa all season, models his game after those kinds of players, and hopes to someday be mentioned in the same breath as them.

“[Toews’] compete level — that’s who he is, he works hard, he’s determined, he’s always hard on the puck,” Saad said. “Hossa, even watching him growing up, he seemed to be an underrated player. You don’t realize how special a player he is until you’re on the same team, getting to see him every day. … That’s something I want to emulate my game around, I want to be that type of player. That’s how I’ve been growing up, and that’s what I want to continue to do.”

Now, with his line often matching up with Datsyuk’s, Saad will get to watch arguably the two best 200-foot players in the league go head to head all series long in what should be a riveting duel of skill, strength and smarts. When it comes to Toews and Datsyuk, nobody does it better — except maybe for the guy standing across from him in the faceoff circle when the puck drops for Game 2.

The two stars’ mentality can be summed up best by Datsyuk, who was asked what he likes better — picking somebody’s pocket, or scoring a goal. Datsyuk smiled. If not for the heavy Russian accent, the exact quote could have come from Toews.

“Both,” he said. “I’m happy for both. They follow each other.”

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