Penguins' Crosby becomes dominant at faceoffs


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Penguins center Sidney Crosby had that look Saturday night, one that translated to a goal, an assist, six shots and a level of play that helped lift his team to a comeback, 4-3 shootout win against the Phoenix Coyotes.

Vintage Crosby.

There was one component of his game that night, though, that was uncharacteristically off. He was below 50 percent in faceoff wins -- just barely -- at 48 percent, mostly because Coyotes veteran forward Vern Fiddler won five of the seven draws between the two in the Penguins' offensive zone.

Fiddler can consider that an accomplishment because Crosby, 23, might be the top faceoff man in the NHL in just his sixth season.

"I don't have all his stats compared to the other top guys right now, but I think he would be," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "I think he arguably would be a guy, no matter who you have on your team, you'd put out there to win a draw in big situations."

Going into Sunday's games, Crosby ranked 14th overall in faceoffs at 57.5 percent. With a larger sampling of games, perhaps midway through the season rather than just a month into it, that number surely would mean a higher ranking for him.

More telling, Crosby is consistently well above average across the board when his draws are broken down by situation, and he's taking 40.8 percent of the Penguins' faceoffs, a larger share than any other player in the league.

In a statistical category where anything above even is good and anything over 55 percent wins is excellent, Crosby's numbers look like this:

In the offensive zone, 53.2 percent. In the defensive zone, 61.6 percent. In the neutral zone, 71.2 percent. At home, 59.3 percent. On the road, 56.1 percent. On the power play, 60 percent. He falls off to 42.8 percent when short-handed, but those numbers usually are below 50 percent because a center's team is at a disadvantage and faceoff wins are determined by which team gets possession, not which player at the faceoff dot gets his stick on the puck.

The Penguins also compile stats according to left or right side, and although the raw numbers weren't available, Bylsma said that while most centers are a good bit better on their backhand, Crosby stands out by being equally good on his forehand.

Crosby, who early in his career made faceoff improvement a point of emphasis, typically downplayed his prowess, saying he simply wants to be consistent and pointing out that, "You can have the greatest game in the faceoff circle, then lose one in your zone and it's in the net sometimes."

He also playfully deflected some credit to his teammates, the ones he counts on to control the puck after a faceoff, saying, "The more help you can get from your wingers, the better."

Those linemates have come to appreciate Crosby's talent in faceoffs, which provides a boost in terms of puck possession.

"It makes it easier on us, the linemates, because we're starting with the puck. We don't have to chase it around," right winger Pascal Dupuis said.

"He's so strong. He goes so low. He uses his body. He's got quick hands."

Crosby has been below 50 percent in just three of the Penguins' 15 games, and none have been below 45 percent.

"I think his hand-eye coordination is second to none," left winger Chris Kunitz said. "It's not like he does a lot of tying up; he wins a lot of draws just flat-out beating the guy to the puck and pushing it to the wall or banking it off the wall or having it go to a [predetermined] area.

"It's pretty amazing how many faceoffs he takes in all zones."

Crosby has taken 341 draws, an average of almost 24 a game. Only Chicago's Jonathan Toews has taken more, 364 before his team's game Sunday, and that was in one more game than Crosby.

Crosby took a season-high 33 draws Oct. 28 against Philadelphia, winning 20 of them for a 61 percent success rate. The next night, he won 13 of 18, or 72 percent, at Carolina.

Taking so many faceoffs means going through some soreness in training camp and early in the season, Crosby said, but added, "Definitely, at this point, you feel good. You can take 50 and you feel good."

Faceoffs aren't just physical. Crosby relies on scouting reports and experience to have an idea what opposing teams and centers might do. He also tries to be unpredictable in what he will do.

"He's done an unbelievable job of having different looks and different moves and being able to win big draws," Bylsma said.

Crosby calls one of the team's designed plays for every draw he takes. Sometimes, he fields suggestions from his teammates on the ice, perhaps from a defenseman when the Penguins are in their defensive zone.

Occasionally, Crosby designs those set faceoff calls, as he did once late last season. At the end of a practice, he and defenseman Sergei Gonchar -- then the quarterback of the Penguins' power play who is now with Ottawa -- worked on a faceoff play where Crosby won the puck straight back to Gonchar at the point with a hard pass, then immediately turned to look for a deflection or set a screen with Gonchar releasing a quick shot.

"A lot of times on faceoffs, he'd shoot pretty much straight as the puck came back, and a lot of teams started defending that a little better, jumping on him a little quicker," Crosby explained. "[The faceoff play] was to make them think about a tip somewhere, maybe give him some time."

Crosby got the idea from watching Detroit do something similar. He has no problem stealing plays from other teams.

"Oh, yeah," he said, then smiled. "It's not stealing. It's learning."


For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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