Message in a Battle
Personal duels like the one between Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote and Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg define the character of the postseason and determine its outcome
In the first minute of Game 2 of the second-round Western Conference series between the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings, two men who have never shared a word but who always seem to share the same square footage on the ice collided in front of the Colorado net. Henrik Zetterberg, who plays left wing for the Red Wings, and Adam Foote, who plays right defense for the Avalanche, jostled and briefly raised their sticks before Foote gave Zetterberg a brisk whack on the hip as the puck left the zone.
To characterize the gamelong Zetterberg-Foote confrontations as a matchup is accurate but also terribly reductive. Something more profound occurs in these 45-second shifts. During the course of a series Zetterberg and Foote do not just play against each other, they become inextricably intertwined. They are a double helix of hockey's cruel and ennobling spring, the DNA of the playoffs. In the stilted language of hockeyspeak, Zetterberg and Foote are physically engaged. But it's not a mere engagement; it's more like a marriage. "And everybody's looking to get divorced," Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville slyly notes. One player will go on to better things, the conference final. The other will just go.
Although Colorado lost the first two games in Detroit, Quenneville had no plans to change the matchup when the series moved Tuesday to Colorado. The coach acknowledges that playing against Detroit's fabulous No. 1 line of Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom might be the NHL's most taxing assignment, but in Foote and his defensive partner Kurt Sauer, Quenneville is confident he has a strong shutdown pair. He played Foote against Zetterberg on nearly every even-strength shift in the first two games, at least until Game 2 veered beyond the Avalanche's control. The coach calls them "abrasive" and says, "The top guys welcome that kind of strict assignment. Individual matchups, add them all up, and if you win more than your share, you'll likely win the series."
Detroit coach Mike Babcock relished the matchup of Zetterberg and Foote just as much as Quenneville. Sitting behind his desk last Friday after practice, he exclaimed, "Not one time!" when asked if he thought about changing his lines on the fly in an effort to get Zetterberg & Co. away from Foote. Although Babcock wouldn't elaborate on why, the reasons seemed obvious: Zetterberg and Datsyuk, who combined for 74 goals and 189 points during the regular season, have a considerable speed advantage over the 36-year-old defenseman. Foote is a master of stick positioning, reading a play and bulldozing the front of the net, but he's not quick and he doesn't make especially crisp first passes, which can give the dynamic Red Wings extra time in the attacking zone if they deflect a few.
"In the end only one of us is going to be right," Babcock said. He leaned forward, his voice growing low and raspy. "And the only way you'll know will be at the end, by who moves on."
Through two games Babcock and the Red Wings had been extraordinarily correct. Zetterberg had a goal in the series opener, a 4-3 win, and another in the 5-1 Game 2 victory, in which he beat a collapsing Foote, who was stuck defending a two-on-one. Zetterberg also had a shorthanded assist in that game when he broke in for a shot that was snuffed by goalie Peter Budaj, and second-line center Johan Franzen nudged in the rebound for his third goal of the game and fifth of the series. Franzen earlier had scored a pair of power-play goals, one on a deflection and the other on a backhand from outside the crease. When asked for his estimate of the cumulative distance of the goals in Franzen's first NHL hat trick, Zetterberg smiled and said, "Eight feet."
The first time Zetterberg, 27, laid eyes on Foote was at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, as Sweden prepared to meet Foote and Team Canada in a round-robin game. Zetterberg, who had seen Foote on television in some of those classic Red Wings-Avalanche playoff series of the late 1990s, immediately decided that the defenseman was one of those players you'd hate to play against but would love to have as a teammate. But now Foote was mere feet away, across the DMZ of the red line. While going through his pregame stretching, Zetterberg, then regarded as the best player in the world who was not in the NHL, gazed over at Joe Sakic, Eric Lindros, Steve Yzerman and Foote. "That was a real nervous moment," said Zetterberg, who had an assist in a 5-2 win. "That was the first contact I'd had with the world's best."
Foote, of course, has no recollection of Zetterberg from that day.
The personalities in this odd coupling could not be more different. Zetterberg, 27, has his own website, complete with his own merchandising line -- henrikzetterberg.com is promoted on the Joe Louis Arena scoreboard during the second intermission -- while Foote is old school enough to assume MySpace is the area between the face-off dot and the front of his own net. Zetterberg has a Google-able girlfriend, Emma Andersson, who is a pop singer/model/TV host/winner of the Swedish version of Survivor, while Foote has a wife, Jennifer, and two sons. Zetterberg has a GQ face, now adorned by a russet-tinted playoff beard, while Foote's mogul course of a nose and lived-in features look like something out of a 19th-century daguerreotype. Their worlds clash most violently whenever Zetterberg tries to slither the puck along the boards and Foote delivers a bodycheck.
Although the matchup is highly personal, Foote learned long ago not to take it personally. "That," Foote says, "is when you get burned. You have to respect your opponent's talents and strengths but focus on your job. I don't talk to anybody on the ice. Brett Hull used to come up to me and say, 'Hey, Footer, how ya doing?' and then he'd get a quick two goals. I learned." Foote's task of defending the Avalanche's goal is complicated by the presence of Datsyuk, who blends so deftly with Zetterberg that the distinction between left wing and center often is blurred as they constantly look for two-on-ones and give-and-go's all over the ice. In Game 1 last Thursday they combined to isolate Foote on the face-off dot, and Zetterberg took a pass behind Foote and burst in to score the Wings' first goal. Says Foote, "He's got great skills and skates well -- maybe that's genetics, the whole Viking thing. But what separates him is his intelligence."
If Zetterberg has left an impression on Foote, rest assured that Foote has left several impressions on Zetterberg: on the wrist, the ankles and the back of his calves. "He's pretty feisty with the stick," Zetterberg says. "He gets you on the spots where it hurts. You get a shot like that, you get mad and you become a better player. He forces me to be a better player because otherwise he just takes me out of the game."
Playoff marriages like these are all quickie affairs, till seven games (or fewer) do they part. (This one will be especially brief unless Avalanche star Peter Forsberg's balky groin feels better quickly.) They end not in recriminations and lawyers' billable hours but with a brief handshake. If only life were that perfect. "You see [Foote] so much on the ice," Zetterberg said. "You hate him. He hates you. Then the series is over." He shrugged. "Some players you dislike even after the series is over, but he isn't one of them."