Pavel Datsyuk had a very, very strong first game in the Detroit Red Wings’ playoff series with the Phoenix Coyotes.  Aside from the non-trivial goal that Datsyuk scored, he fired the puck at the opposition net 11 times (eight of them got through to Ilya Bryzgalov), and according to the official score sheet recorded three takeaways to his single giveaway.  It was a spectacular performance, and in keeping with Datsyuk’s post-season performances of recent years.

It was, on the other hand, not the sort of performance one would have expected from Datsyuk earlier in his post-season career.

There was a time when Datsyuk was regarded as a major playoff disappointment.

As a rookie in 2001-02, Datsyuk’s scoring totals were underwhelming: three goals and three assists in 21 games.  In the final series against the Hurricanes, he was an utter nonfactor, failing to dint the score sheet even once as the Red Wings won the Cup.  Still, being a rookie on a deep championship team, the criticism wasn’t too loud.

The volume did increase over ensuing seasons.  The Wings were major disappointments in 2002-03, being swept in the first round by the Western Conference’s seventh seed, the Anaheim Ducks.  Although the primary factor was the superb play of Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the Wings did not get an easy ride in the hockey press.  Curtis Joseph, who had been very good but committed the sin of being sub-Giguerian, was a favourite target; despite excellent numbers (2.08 GAA, 0.917 SV%) he was criticized for things like ‘not making the big save.’  Even so, Datsyuk’s pointless, minus-3 performance over four games (after scoring 51 in 64 regular season games) did not go entirely unheeded.

By the time the Red Wings were eliminated in the first round of the 2006 playoffs (this time by the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers), Pavel Datsyuk had not scored in 26 consecutive playoff games.  He had managed 58 goals over the two previous regular seasons and for three years had been a first-line calibre scorer, but he continued to be a bit player in the post season.

As suddenly as the flip of a light switch, everything changed.  In the 2007 playoffs, Datsyuk scored eight goals and added eight helpers in 18 playoff contests.  Entering this post season, Datsyuk has been a vital component in four consecutive Detroit playoff runs (including a Cup win and a finals loss).  Over those four post-seasons, Datsyuk has managed to more than quadruple his scoring from his first four playoffs.

What’s the point of this little history lesson?

It’s simple: playoff reputations are built up over a relatively short period of time.  Players have been known to have bad seasons, and we can accept that without writing them off, but as a hockey-watching community we seem to struggle to accept that in the playoffs.  Datsyuk had only played 42 playoff games – half of them in his rookie year – but his reputation as a playoff flop was established.  He’s only been able to correct our communal misunderstanding by virtue of playing for a very good team and getting a lot more playoff games.

There are a lot of players out there who have made a reputation, for good or bad, based on fewer playoff games than Datsyuk played.  Players on especially bad teams have seen their careers come and go with fewer playoff games played than Datsyuk.

Roberto Luongo’s one of the former.  After wasting the start of his superb career with miserable clubs in Long Island and Florida, he’s played in three post-seasons for the Canucks, 35 games in all.  He has a 0.919 SV% over that span, despite some lousy performances against Chicago, but he’s often referred to as a ‘choker’ or a disappointment.

This isn’t about Luongo in particular; he’s simply one example of a general trend: judgements on a player’s playoff prowess are made all the time, and they’re often made too quickly because we need to make do with the information we have.  It’s important not to let those preconceptions blind us.