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The face-off totals mirrored the scoreboard in the first four games of the Eastern Conference finals. In Tampa Bay's opening 5--2 victory the Lightning outdrew Boston 41--26, and normally reliable Bruins center David Krejci was an anemic 3 for 18 on the dot. In winning the next two games the Bruins won 78 of 138 (56.5%) face-offs.
They also outfoxed Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher's ballyhooed 1-3-1 forecheck by shooting pucks on goal from long range, which kept the trailing Lightning defenseman from knowing which way to go to retrieve the puck. Boston then entered the zone with speed and used aggressive forechecking to keep Tampa's defense from moving the puck to its forwards. It wasn't a case of amassing puck time as much as it was a concerted effort to prevent giveaways in the neutral zone. The Bruins also used soft chips past the Lightning's three-man wall, a maneuver Wilson says his Sharks often employ too, as the modern game has once again embraced the old-time—and oft-derided—offensive tactic of dump and chase. "It used to be that if I pushed the puck ahead of you, a self-chip, to try to retrieve it, if I didn't put it in deep, I was giving up the puck, because you could hold me up and stop me from getting it back unless I had time to fight through your check," he says. "Now the defenseman can't hold you up unless he takes a penalty, and he has his back to the puck you're about to retrieve... . [The self-chip is] a possession play now."
In the West the battle for possession began even before the first puck was dropped, as Thornton challenged Canucks center Ryan Kesler to a fight at the opening face-off. Kesler, who was matched against Thornton for most of the first two games in Vancouver, demurred. "When Joe has the puck," Kesler says, "he's so strong on his skates, it's pretty useless to play him; I have to play his stick. We really have to start with the puck because then we play at our pace and they have to play our game—and Joe can't have the puck."
Kesler's efforts have been even more crucial because both Henrik and Daniel Sedin have hinted that they are playing through injuries. Though the twins have combined for 15 points in leading the Canucks to a 3--1 series advantage through Sunday (when Vancouver beat the Sharks 4--2), their three goals have all come on the power play. If they are not healthy, it would explain their struggles while playing at even strength, when they have a combined -12 rating for the postseason. Both have had trouble establishing any sort of puck-control cycle in the offensive zone. In Vancouver's 3--2 win over the Sharks in Game 1, it was the Canucks' third line, which got a goal from center Max Lapierre, that earned much of the postgame praise. "You saw how much they had the puck in San Jose's end, like every time they were on the ice," goalie Roberto Luongo said after the game.
The NHL kept a form of time-of-possession statistics between 1997 and 2004, tracking the amount of time a puck spent per game in each third of the ice, but never accumulated them over a season to consider their value. "There wasn't much demand for them," says Benny Ercolani, the league's chief statistician. But in the new postlockout world, demand seems certain to increase. One obstacle to getting a standardized number is that many of hockey's newer stats—such as giveaways, takeaways and hits—are at the whim of hometown scorekeepers. It's a case of one man's strategic dump-in morphing into another man's giveaway.
As a result teams are on their own to compile and break down numbers differently—including every one of the conference finalists. "Hockey is a game of flow," says Canucks G.M. Mike Gillis. "No, we don't keep a numerical evaluation. We keep time in their zone, time when our defense participates in the play... . Hmm, well I guess we do [keep a numerical evaluation]. It's possible, but it's not always very useful." Says Yzerman, "I'm not aware that we keep time of possession. We keep scoring chances, quality shots, scoring chances against, things like that, as a reference." Bruins G.M. Peter Chiarelli says his club emphasizes the location of its scoring chances. "You could have good time of possession and be on the periphery," he explains. And Wilson is coy about whether the Sharks tabulate their own possession stats. "Maybe," he says. "I can't tell you."
Blame Holland's Red Wings for the lack of uniformity. Most of Detroit's scouting staff has been in place for more than a decade, and its sense of what constitutes effective possession play is intuitive rather than codified or numerically defined. "You just have a sense," Holland says. "The type of player you want, the type of situation you reference for your next game, you see it."
If the definition of puck possession remains hazy, its resonance is clear. The Stanley Cup champs are likely to be the ones who best master it.