Penguins starting to save face over faceoff percentage
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Understand that the connection isn't always this obvious.
Controlling a faceoff doesn't usually lead directly to a goal. Fact is, it very rarely does.
Still, a sequence that produced the Penguins' first goal in their 6-4 victory in Toronto Saturday night underscores the importance of winning draws.
With just more than five minutes gone in the opening period and a faceoff in the circle to the right of Maple Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala, right winger Adam Hall -- the only true non-center to handle a faceoff for the Penguins this season -- controlled the draw and pulled the puck behind him.
- Game: Penguins vs. New Jersey Devils.
- When: 7:38 p.m. Wednesday.
- Where: Mellon Arena.
- TV: FSN Pittsburgh.
Erik Christensen swooped in from along the right-wing boards and collected the puck, then whipped it through traffic and behind Toskala to make it 1-0.
Had Hall failed to win that faceoff, the chain of events that led to Christensen's goal would have been broken, and the course of the game might have been altered.
The Penguins might start to get goals like that one a bit more often because, after years of being at or near the bottom of the NHL rankings on faceoffs, they are on the verge of becoming downright, well, average.
That might not sound like much, but after having a league-worst success rate of 47 percent in 2006-07, ranking 18th in the league before last night's games at 49.8 percent is a significant step.
A week ago, there was no reason to believe the Penguins would rise to such a lofty level so quickly. They were 58-73 on faceoffs against Carolina and Anaheim in the first two games, but rebounded to 31-27 in a 3-2 loss to Montreal Wednesday and 40-30 in Toronto.
Neither the Canadiens (22nd before last night) nor the Maple Leafs (26th) make a habit of dominating opponents on draws, so the Penguins' productive run of late might be a bit misleading. It is, however, a facet of their game they've been trying to upgrade.
"We work on it," Penguins center Maxime Talbot said. "We definitely want to get better as a team. To accept that we're going to lose more than the other team makes no sense at all."
Hall not only is the Penguins' long right-handed faceoff man, but their most efficient one through the first four games of the season. He has gone 13-8, a success rate of 61.9 percent.
Predictably, Sidney Crosby has handled more draws than any of his teammates, winning 58 and losing 42. He was an undistinguished 23 for 26 against Carolina and Anaheim in the first two games, but followed that with a 19-9 effort against Montreal and a 16-7 performance in Toronto.
The Penguins' other faceoff men: Jordan Staal, 12-16, 42.8 percent; Christensen, 17-23, 42.5 percent; Talbot, 19-26, 42.2 percent; and Evgeni Malkin, 10-14, 41.7 percent.
One problem for the Penguins is that most of the guys who handle draws for them are young, and knowing the tricks and tactics opponents use matters as much as strength or reflexes. That kind of knowledge can only be acquired over time.
"The more experience you have taking faceoffs, the better you're going to be," Hall said. "Some guys use quickness, some guys try to overpower you, some guys tie you up.
"There are so many different ways to go about it. There's a lot of strategy involved. That's what makes it fun."
So far this season, there is no unwavering connection between winning faceoffs and winning games for the Penguins -- they are 1-1 when controlling more than half of their draws, 1-1 when the opponent does -- but players recognize the benefits that come from doing well on faceoffs.
"There's no hiding the fact that they're important," Crosby said.
To wit: It's difficult to play the kind of puck-possession game the Penguins like when the other team possesses it more often than they do.
"If you can be successful [on draws] most of the time, you're going to be starting with the puck, you're going to have more possession time with the puck," Hall said.
Crosby noted that, while faceoff percentages weigh all draws evenly, some are far more significant than others. Those deep in one zone or the other in the final minute of a one-goal game, for example, mean much more than ones in the neutral zone early in the first period.
"You can try as hard as you want to win [every] draw, but let's be honest," he said. "When there are 10 seconds left and you're up by a goal and you know that they have six guys out there who all want to put it in in the next 10 seconds, you're going to be desperate."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Oct. 16, 2007) The statistics for four of the Penguins' face-off men were incorrectly labeled in this story as originally published in Oct. 15, 2007 editions. The correct numbers were: Jordan Staal, winning 12 faceoffs and losing 16; Erik Christensen, 17 and 23; Maxime Talbot, 19 and 26; and Evgeni Malkin, 10 and 14.
First Published October 15, 2007 12:00 am