Quick draw artists
"If you can win faceoffs, they have to get the puck from you, they have to get puck possession," said Detroit Red Wing center Kris Draper. "It can take 15, 20 seconds off a top line's shift just by winning a draw. … To me, a faceoff's a lot more than just starting play. You can put a top line on its heels for 15, 20 seconds."
And in a sport where a line gets on and off the ice in a minute or less, that's a big chunk of time.
So when you watch the Red Wings host the San Jose Sharks tonight (7:30 p.m., FSN), you'll be watching the two best faceoff teams in the NHL, featuring the two best faceoff men in the league this season. San Jose leads the league at 56.1 percent. Detroit is next at 55.6 percent and finished among the top three teams in the NHL in the previous three seasons.
"The bottom line is it is a game of possession," said Detroit coach Mike Babcock. "You'd like to have the puck more than the other team. It's a one-on-one battle you'd like to win. It's skill and it's important."
Make that one part skill, one part experience.
Players will tell you that one key to winning faceoffs is knowing your opponent. And you don't get that without having battled in the circle for years.
San Jose center Joe Thornton leads the NHL (100 minimum faceoffs) this season with a 66.2 winning percentage. Detroit's Kris Draper is second at 61.2 percent.
In four of Thornton's first five full NHL seasons, however, he was under 50 percent on faceoffs. And when he moved from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference in the middle of the 2005-06 season, his faceoff work slipped while he learned new opponents, dropping after his move from Boston to San Jose.
In the first four years after the league started tracking faceoffs (1998-99 was the first season), Draper only once had a winning percentage above 56.5. In the past four seasons, Draper hasn't been below that mark once.
Ask Draper if he's a better faceoff man now than when he entered the league.
"Oh yah," laughed Draper. "Experience matters a lot. Tendencies against other guys, exactly what they're going to do. Now more than ever, we practice a lot of faceoffs after practice and pregame skates."
Draper will likely take most of his draws against Patrick Marleau. Henrik Zetterberg's line will likely go against Thornton's if Babcock gets his matchup.
Both San Jose and Detroit have good depth in the faceoff circle. Zetterberg is winning at 57.4 percent and Pavel Datsyuk is at 53.4 percent. Behind Thornton on San Jose are Marleau (54.2), Torrey Mitchell (52.2) and Joe Pavelski (52.2).
And going against good faceoff men lends itself to using more weapons than just experience.
"I've been called a cheater before in the faceoff circle," said Draper. "My job is to go out there and win as many draws as I can, especially in the last couple of minutes when we're protecting a lead."