DETROIT – It’s a game within the game – the faceoff circle.
There will likely be 60-some faceoffs in tonight’s Game 4, and everyone one of them will be as critical as those taken during the first three games of the Western Conference semifinals between the Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks.
Dominance in the faceoff circle is a tough nut to crack, as everything seems to even out by the end of the game. However, faceoff wins is an area that the Red Wings have managed to hold an upper hand against the Blackhawks, especially Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.
“It’s such a big part of the game and who gets to start with the puck,” forward Gustav Nyquist said. “In the defensive zone you don’t want to lose it because they get a chance to score on you, and in the offensive zone you want to win because you want to score. So I think all faceoffs are a big part of every game.”
There’s a been a lot of talk about the Red Wings having frustrated the Blackhawks in the last two games, both Detroit victories, including Monday’s 3-1 win at Joe Louis Arena. The ’Hawks’ frustration is beginning at the faceoff dot, and it’s their leader, captain Jonathan Toews, who is feeling the heat. Considered to be one of the league’s best drawmen over the last five seasons, Toews hasn’t had much luck against Detroit in this series.
Zetterberg is tight-lipped when speaking about his tactics in the circle, but he said, “It's always important, especially against this team. If you're chasing the puck for 30 or 40 seconds, you don't have energy to play in the offensive zone. If you have the puck from the start, it's easier.”
Toews finished the regular season ranked second with a 59.9 winning percentage in the faceoff circle. Through eight playoff games, he’d ranked seventh at 57.6 percent. But against the Red Wings, Toews’ numbers have dropped off to 46.8 percent (29-of-62), and more so against Zetterberg at 39.3 percent (11-of-28).
“I think both are good faceoff guys. Toews is top five, he’s a great, great faceoff guy,” said Wings rookie center Joakim Andersson, whose defensive zone faceoff win led to Nyquist's Game 3 goal. “But Zetterberg is so competitive. He’s not going to let Toews run a show in the circle. He’s going to dig in there and do whatever it takes to win some draws. Toews is so good and he’s going to win his share of faceoffs, but Zetterberg is going to make sure that he wins his part too.”
However he’s done it, Zetterberg has done a masterful job of containing Toews in the circle, holding the Blackhawks’ captain.
Meanwhile, Datsyuk has been equally magnificent in the circle for the Wings, winning 69.2 percent of his draws (17-of-39) against Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw, Michal Handzus, Dave Bolland, Brandon Saad and Michael Frolik.
“I think Zetterberg and Datsyuk are so strong on their sticks,” Nyquist said. “You won’t find that many players in this league that wins that many battles in the corners because they are so strong on their stick, and that really shows in the faceoff circles as well. The stats kind of speak for themselves. They’re real good.”
It’s the playoffs, and the Blackhawks understand that faceoffs are more than the center winning the draw. They have to get their wingers involved more, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said.
“It’s definitely a factor. We’ve got to get better in that area,” he said. “That’s definitely an area that’s a point of emphasis going forward. All zones. All critical ones, special teams, PK, offensive-zone faceoffs we’ve given up a couple goals the last two games.
“You’ve got a tendency to look at the guy you’re against and what his tendencies are and getting an even puck drop is what we’re looking for, finding ways where … if you’re not going to win it, we’ve got a 50/50 chance along the line. So, there’s more work we can do and not just counting our centermen coming up with the win and not just laying the onus on them.”
It’s the playoffs, and Toews welcomes the adversity that he and the Blackhawks face tonight.
“There’s nothing wrong with (adversity), that's something you have to embrace come playoff time,” Toews said. “If there's a few bounces that aren't going your way you can't just chalk it up as puck luck, you got to find a way to get in going your way. The harder you work, the more bounces you're going to get.”
Keep any eye on the game with tonight’s game.
THREE IN A ROW: The Blackhawks only lost 12 games during the regular season. They had three two-game losing streaks – and one during the postseason – but never lost more than two in a row.
The Red Wings can pin a three straight loss on Chicago tonight in Game 4 at Joe Louis Arena, but it won’t be easy, said fourth-line center Cory Emmerton.
“They were hungry last game and had some good chances,” he said. “We expect them to be even more amped up. I don’t know if they’re lost three in a row all year too. It’s the playoffs and we expect everything to be thrown at us. If we do have a lead we play like we did in the third (in Game 3) and just sit back we just have to keep going at them, but at the same time be responsible defensively.”
AN EYE ON G.R.: Nyquist said that he’s paid close attention to his Griffins teammates who are headed to the AHL’s Western Conference finals after defeating the Toronto Marlies in the second round.
“The Griffins are doing a fantastic job,” said Nyquist, who led the Griffins with 37 assists and 60 points this season. “It was a crazy game the other night, I saw they were down 3-1 with 10-minutes to go and they won 4-3, so moved on to the conference finals, and obviously the leaders are all of the veterans, like (Tomas) Tatar and I think (Riley) Sheahan and (Landon) Ferraro have taken a bigger role down there. All of the vets have done a great job for them down there, and I’m happy for them and hopefully they’ll keep going like this.”
The Griffins will host the Oklahoma City Barons with Games 1 and 2 this Friday and Saturday at Van Andel Arena.
Nyquist took a moment Thursday to share his thoughts for those impacted by the severe storms that devastated central Oklahoma.
“It’s horrible to see,” he said. “It’s real sad to see stuff like that happen. Hopefully there won’t be anymore (tornadoes). I really haven’t kept up the last few days if there are any more tornado warnings, but yeah, you don’t want to see that happen.”
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose