|Tuesday, December 24
Updated: December 27, 10:35 AM ET
Faceoffs: An underappreciated art form
By Chris Stevenson
Special to ESPN.com
Yanic Perreault is hot.
It's one of those nights for the Montreal Canadiens center, one of those nights when he is at the height of his art, dominating like few others can in the National Hockey League's game within a game.
He is showing why on this night against the Ottawa Senators.
In one sequence in the closing minutes of the first period, Perreault is unbeatable, and his uncanny ability to win possession keeps the fleet-footed Senators pinned in their zone.
During one draw against Ottawa's Radek Bonk, Perreault and Bonk tie up each other's sticks for a second or two, but then Perreault springs his loose and puts the puck on net.
During another draw, Perreault wins the puck straight back to Montreal defenseman Craig Rivet, who gets a shot on goal.
During the third draw in the sequence, Perreault drops to one knee in the battle for the puck, twists his body and sends the puck back to the point again.
Perreault's ability to give his team the puck also kept it away from the speedy Senators and kept them on their heels. It was a factor in the Habs ending the Senators' eight-game home-ice winning streak with a 3-2 win on Dec. 16.
After all, it's tough to score when you don't have the puck.
In the faceoff circle, a winning percentage of 60 percent makes you one of the best.
Through two periods against the Senators, Perreault was 10-1 (90.9 percent). He finished the night 11-5 (68.75 percent) and leads the league this season at 63.01.
"He's been one of the best every year," said veteran winger Randy McKay, now playing on a line with Perreault in Montreal. "He's got those quick hands and a quick stick. It's gotta be those quick hands because he's not really strong or big. He's phenomenal."
Faceoffs are like other individual battles in the course of a game. Win most of them and, more often than not, you will win the game.
On other nights, you may lose most, but a key win at a key point in the game can be the difference.
But through the course of a game, there are perhaps 25 or so that can directly influence the outcome of the game.
"Faceoffs can be very crucial inside either end zone," said Senators assistant coach Perry Pearn. "That's when they take on significance. Winning or losing can lead directly to goals.
"In today's game when you are up against a skilled team, like the Detroit Red Wings, which likes puck possession, it becomes even more important because if they are winning faceoffs, they are starting with the puck. You can be successful against them if you are winning faceoffs."
After consultation with coaches and players, here are five factors that can determine strategy and the outcome of the battle in the faceoff circle:
1. Location, location, location
"If the faceoff is in your zone," said Senators center Todd White, "you're not necessarily trying to win it, but not lose it clean."
When the faceoff is in the offensive zone, centers will take more chances, knowing a loss will still leave the puck 150 feet away from their net.
Some veterans won't show their best move in a neutral zone faceoff, preferring to keep their "A" move for a defensive zone faceoff or a more crucial moment later in the game.
"In the neutral zone, you might not show your best stuff," said Senators veteran center Shaun Van Allen. "You save your best stuff for either end."
Perreault said he never leaves anything in the bag. He wants to dominate his opponent and build up confidence while trying to shake his opponent's.
"Every faceoff I take, I'm trying to win," he said. "The neutral zone, the defensive zone, the offensive zone. I know some guys back off in the neutral zone. I want to send the message you can't beat me."
Another factor that influences a faceoff outcome is whether a player is on his "strong" side or not. For most left-shooting players, that's on the left side of the rink in the offensive zone, since they have the option of either firing the puck at the net or drawing it back to the point man who has the most protection and time to get a shot away.
The other thing that helps in that situation is the linesman is standing to their left, so they are already a little turned in the direction they want to draw the puck while looking at the linesman's hand, anticipating the drop of the puck.
You will see some players reverse their bottom hand on the stick in that situation to get even more leverage.
"Most faceoff men are stronger in that situation," said Perreault.
Like the outcome of the faceoff itself, the rules of the faceoff are not always black and white.
Rule 54 of the National Hockey League Official Rules 2002-03 sounds straight forward:
When the faceoff takes place in any of the end face-off circles, the players taking part shall take their position so that they will stand squarely facing their opponent's end of the rink and clear of the ice markings. The sticks of both players facing-off shall have the blade on the ice within the designated white area. The visiting player shall place his stick within the designated white area first followed IMMEDIATELY by the home player.
The fact is, cheating on faceoffs goes on all the time.
"How much can you cheat? It depends on your years of service," said one young player, who asked that his name not be used for fear he wouldn't get to cheat at all.
The two biggest areas in which players try to get an edge are in putting their sticks down and the position of their feet.
"Putting your stick down is close to an art," said Van Allen. "The trick is putting your stick down and than bringing it up all in one motion. That gives you a good advantage right there."
The player with his stick up has the advantage of leverage to either swipe at the puck or knock the other player's stick out of the way.
The other way players try to get an illegal advantage is by angling their feet. Carolina Hurricanes veteran Ron Francis gets away with it the most, according to several centers interviewed by ESPN.com.
"Francis is good with his feet to start with," said one player. "If he gets away with turning his feet on a forehand faceoff so his foot is closer to the dot, he gets it in there to block you. He jams his foot and stick in there at the same time. The linesmen let him do it, and it's very tough to beat."
3. A little help from your friends
"Your wingers can help you out," said Perreault. "It's harder to have set plays now (where the winger knows where the center is trying to put the puck) because with the fast faceoff, you can't talk to the guys. You have to do in the room before."
"There's one guy taking the faceoff," said Van Allen, "but four other guys on your side have a say in what happens."
4. Know your enemy
"Number one, you have to know who you are going against," said Perreault. "As you get more and more games in the league, you learn what they like to do. Before the game, I look at the other team's lineup and look at their centermen. I remember how I did the last game, remember their strengths."
5. Something special
"There are more situations where they are much more significant," said Pearn, "and the one that really comes to mind is during a 5-on-3 power play. If you're on the power play in that situation and the other team wins the draw in their zone and gets it down the ice, it costs you 25-30 seconds. Most 5-on-3's don't last that long."
Chris Stevenson covers the NHL for the Ottawa Sun and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.