By Larry Wigge
He's no Pavel Datsyuk. He fails in comparison to Henrik Zetterberg. But put a player in a position to score for Valtteri Filppula and watch what happens.
Having squandered 3-0 and 4-1 leads to the Anaheim Ducks, the Detroit Red Wings were clinging to hope in overtime.
Suddenly, Filppula made a offensive rush. The 29-year-old center from Vantaa, Finland, dragged the puck toward the goal line. Then, he sent a backhand pass across the slot to rookie winger Gustav Nyquist, who was all alone in front of the left side of the net at 1:21 of overtime to give Detroit a 5-4 victory to even the series at 1-1.
"Fil made an unbelievable play," Nyquist said. "It was almost an empty net for me, so I just tried to put it on net."
A lot of stars of the past have gone by the wind since Detroit won Stanley Cups in 2002 and in 2008. Trying to find their identity, the Red Wings struggled to gain seventh place in the Western Conference.
But Datsyuk and Zetterberg are still there. And so is Filppula.
"Different name, but really, really good," Zetterberg explained, "and getting more confident in his ability all the time."
There are those skeptics who would dispute. Oh, Valtteri Filppula had his best season last season, when he totaled 23 goals and 43 assists for 66 points. But, then, he slumped to just nine goals and eight assists in 41 games in the 48 condensed schedule this season.
And he had NO points ... until his brilliant backhand pass set up Nyquist in this year's playoffs.
I can remember former captain a future Hall of Famer Nick Lidstrom once talking about Filppula. He asked was that, "Was that 51 or 40?" Lidstrom knew that Zetterberg was No. 40 and 51 was Filppula.
"The kid has size, speed ... and great skill," continued Lidstrom.
"He's got great vision, he can give you great passes, and he's got great speed and balance,'' Johan Franzen said. "When he plays with confidence, he's really, really dangerous."
"Fil's one of those guys that would be probably on a top line on any other team," said defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "He's a very smart player, both directions, great defensively, great offensively. He doesn't always get the attention because of the players we have, but he's always a key for us. The way he works out there shows everyone he's a leader."
Said teammate Dan Cleary: "His passing and creativity and his skating allow him to do so many things."
"It's always the same with Fil," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "The more he gets on the inside, the more he shoots the puck, the better player he is. You can always transport the puck and be on the outside, but if he wants to be on the inside, that's where the high-end players play."
To which Filppula shakes his head.
"You don't attack any more than you do as a center," Filppula said. "But usually as a center you attack against all five guys, or four guys."
Like many of the Red Wings, Filppula is home grown. He was a third-round pick, 95th overall, in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.
The story on this forward is typical. Filppula followed his older brother Lars, who currently plays in the Finnish Elite League, to the rink. He lived to play hockey. He had posters of Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu in his room back home.
"My parents were the driving force," Valtteri said. "My brother and I got our athletic ability from my dad, who played Finnish baseball. And my mom ... she’s a teacher ... and she made sure both of us learned more than just one language, so we could succeed in the world. That has become very, very important to me."
Raimeri Filppula, Val’s father, currently works as an electrical engineer. His mom, Liisa, still is a kindergarten teacher.
Filppula wasn’t one of those too-small prospects the Red Wings dug up late in the 1998 and 1999 drafts, when they selected Datsyuk 171st in 1998 and Zetterberg 210th the following year. He's 6-0, 193 pounds. But there still were some anxious moments for him.
"I had a pretty good year scoring in my final year in the Finnish Elite League (10 goals and 30 points, plus another 11 points in 12 playoff games for Jokerit Helsinki in 2004-05), but when I got to North America ... it was like the walls were closing in on me ... no room to move on the smaller ice surface over here," Filppula added. "I didn't know if I'd make it here."
And when Babcock tapped Filppula on the shoulder to move from his normal line with Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson to play with Hossa and Holmstrom, he cited Valtteri's speed and playmaking ability as what he wanted from him in this situation.
"The Red Wings don't put you on any situation that might put you in over your head, in answer to your question about playing on the No. 1 line now," Filppula said. "And they make sure you have another player who acts as a sounding-board for you."
"Exactly," he smiled.
And who's your mentor?
"Pav," he said, smiling again.
And how does Datsyuk help you out?
"He tells me to be comfortable and confident. Enjoy myself," Filppula said of his time on the ice and off the ice watching movies like The Usual Suspects, the Die Hard series and James Bond action flicks, plus listening to his favorite Metallica songs, playing tennis or working on his golf game.
But there's no time for leisure activities now.
"Oh yeah, I forgot," Filppula said with his biggest smile of the day. "Pav always tells me to shoot more."
When you see Valtteri Filppula dangle the way he did in overtime of Game 1, it's clear he is getting closer and closer to being that Finn-ished product the Red Wings are looking for.