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A Game within a Game

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Henrik Zetterberg and San Jose's Joe Thornton know each other very well when it comes to taking face-offs against one another. (Photo by Dave Reginek)
DETROIT -- When you’re watching tonight’s game, pay close attention to the activities in the face-off circle, especially the gamesmanship when Henrik Zetterberg lines-up across from San Jose’s Joe Thornton.

As much as the Red Wings and Sharks have built a rivalry over the last few seasons, Zetterberg and Thornton have done so on a personal level. While they won’t be mistaken for the league’s top two centermen at taking draws, their staunch battles for puck-possession could likely determine tonight’s outcome … again.

“Actually tonight is going to be fun,” Zetterberg said. “I’ll be taking a lot of face-offs against Joe, and have done so throughout my career. Usually they’re some pretty good battles.”

In 11 games last season – including an epic Western Conference semifinal series that went the distance – the two centers went head-to-head in the circle 82 times with Zetterberg winning the draws 47.6 percent of the time.

But both men said Friday morning that more goes into taking draws then fans know, including some occasional shenanigans.

“You try to know what they like and what they try to do,” Zetterberg said, “and they probably know what you like to do. Basically, it comes down to cheating. The guy who cheats the most usually wins the most.”

Thornton agreed, saying, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying, that’s my motto half the time.”

Another big factor is the five-inches in height that Zetterberg gives up to the 6-foot-4 Thornton, who uses every bit of his 230-pounds to muscle face-off wins.

“Being a bigger guy, you have to use your strength, use your stick-size and just try to over-power other centers,” Thornton said. “I try to be as strong as I can, just try to be quick and try to be powerful on them. That’s what my plan usually is.”

By league rule, the visiting player must put his stick blade on the ice first, immediately followed by the home player. This gives the home team the advantage, which should work in Zetterberg’s favor tonight.

“It is different at home against him,” said Zetterberg, of Thornton. “He likes to come in late with the stick, and he has great timing and he’s strong on his bottom hand. I’ll say that it’s a little easier at home. But in the Shark Tank, it’s tough to take draws against him.”

While Thornton lists Vancouver’s Manny Malhotra as the NHL center that gives him the most trouble on draws, Zetterberg isn’t far behind, he said.

“With Hank, he’s just so competitive, he never gives up, and I think he digs and it’s a sense of pride for him,” Thornton said. “I think Malholtra is the toughest guy I face. But Pavel (Datsyuk) is tough, Hank and (Ryan) Kesler are tough. Those are the guys that you play the most because they’re in your own conference and you’re always going head-to-head with them.”

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill

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