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Face Off!
Michael Farber
April 27, 1998
Overlooked or dismissed as inconsequential by the casual observer, draws, in fact, can mean the difference between winning and losing—especially in the tightly contested playoffs
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April 27, 1998

Face Off!

Overlooked or dismissed as inconsequential by the casual observer, draws, in fact, can mean the difference between winning and losing—especially in the tightly contested playoffs

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Do the math. If the Flyers, for instance, are killing a penalty against the Pittsburgh Penguins and win a draw in the defensive zone, they can ice the puck—forcing the Penguins to waste about 20 seconds retrieving it and setting up in the attacking zone. Thus, one face-off can eat up one sixth of a two-minute power play.

Take the example a step further. The shift for a top power play unit lasts just over a minute. If Philadelphia's Joel Otto beats Pittsburgh's Ron Francis on the draw and the Flyers clear the puck, Francis and line-mates Jaromir Jagr and Stu Barnes will spend a healthy part of their shift chasing and lugging the puck instead of working it in the offensive zone. In this case, a single face-off can tie up one third of a key shift.

When Sanderson was eight years old, he learned face-off math from his father, Harold, as they watched the peerless Teeter Kennedy take draws for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada. "There were about 95 to 100 face-offs a game then," Sanderson says. "Icings, offsides, penalties, goals, more pucks going into the stands because the glass wasn't as high as it is now, goalies covering it, tie-ups in the corner. The way my father figured, if you won a draw, it guaranteed your team at least five seconds of clear puck possession. Don't you want to control the puck several more minutes per game than the other team? This isn't basketball, where you inbound the ball. Or football, where you snap it. Or baseball, where you just throw it. This is a fight over a loose puck, and the team that: wins those face-offs will win the game."

The numbers support Sanderson. According to the face-off statistics for the just-completed season—the first time the NHL tracked these stats officially—only two teams with sub-.500 records, the Vancouver Canucks and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, were among the top nine face-off teams in the league. Of the six bona fide Stanley Cup contenders, only the Colorado Avalanche, at 47.9%, had a losing face-off mark. "The more public this becomes, the more aware players will be," says Dallas assistant coach Doug Jarvis, a former face-off specialist who noticed that opposing centers were concentrating harder against his team after the Stars were tops in the league when the statistics for October were released.

Of course, players like Sanderson have kept their own unofficial records. He says that he won 37 straight draws in the 1969 playoffs before Boston coach Harry Sinden inexplicably pulled him in favor of Phil Esposito for a late defensive-zone face-off against Montreal's Ralph Backstrom. "We lost the draw, they scored and it probably cost us the Cup," Sanderson says. "I'd just beaten [Henri] Richard, Backstrom, Lemaire, [Jean] Béliveau and Backstrom again, and on the last draw I took, I'd pulled it like it was on a string and we froze the puck. Harry and I still talk about it. He says, 'Yeah, I guess you were doing pretty good.' I say, 'Harry, that's selective memory. Thirty-seven in a row. I was doing great! "

The Dot

At NHL headquarters in Toronto during the winter of 1995-96, league executives hunched over imaginary face-off dots, shifting pieces of masking tape on the carpet. They were making adjustments to the face-off circle in an effort to stop some of the craftier players, who were taking advantage of opponents and virtually stealing draws. "We had to make the face-offs fair again," says Bryan Lewis, the NHL director of officiating, who was one of the people kneeling on that carpet. The NHL, which has changed the configuration of the circle 17 times since 1939, took the new design from the broadloom to the ice, modified it during a trial run in the East Coast Hockey League and unveiled the changes at the start of the '96-97 season.

Now the red face-off dot appears to sit in the intersection of two streets, which are formed by two sets of L-shaped lines (photo, page 62). Each face-off man must have one skate inside each of his two L's, and the visiting player must put his stick down in a crescent of white space on his side of the red dot before the home-team center does the same. With these few daubs of paint, the NHL virtually eliminated face-off cheating. "Before, the players were practically running the face-offs," says linesman Ray Scapinello, a 27-year veteran who has officiated more NHL games than anyone else in history. "Now the linesmen have control. Whoever came up with the new design should get an award."

"The rules are a lot fairer," Nieuwendyk says. "It used to be that the guy who cheated the best won the face-off."

The problem was, face-off men were always angling for an angle, usually a 45-degree one. If a center could set himself on an angle relative to his opponent—and there were no guidelines other than a linesman's directive to stay square—he could more easily spin through the circle, screen the opponent with his body and kick the puck to a teammate.

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