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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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Officially, the Best in the Business

At the end of this season, the first in which the NHL kept face-off statistics, these were the leading face-off winners (minimum 15% of team's face-offs).

PIAYER, TEAM

W

L

PCT.

Eric Lindros, Flyers

798

529

.601

Joe Nieuwendyk, Stars

802

547

.595

Guy Carbonneau, Stars

828

567

.594

Mark Janssens, Coyotes

677

490

.580

Steve Yzerman, Red Wings

954

694

.579

Bobby Holik, Devils

743

545

.577

Mike Sillinger, Flyers

532

391

.576

Adam Oates, Capitals

1,172

862

.576

Stu Barnes, Penguins

716

528

.576

Steve Dubinsky, Blackhawks

580

428

.575

Getting Set

The face-off came in the Dallas Stars' defensive zone with 9.9 seconds left in the first period of a game last month against the Phoenix Coyotes. It was one of those felicitous moments when a fan can either get a running start toward the concession stands or stay to watch hockey reveal itself. Dallas's Joe Nieuwendyk, a good face-off man, had just been whipped twice within a matter of seconds, and Stars coach Ken Hitchcock was switching centers, sending Guy Carbonneau to take the draw in the circle to the right of Dallas goalie Ed Belfour.

For the 38-year-old Carbonneau, it was the 10th face-off of the period and maybe the 30,000th of his career. He has been on the job regularly in the NHL since 1983-84, when he played for the Montreal Canadiens, and has all sorts of information on opposing centers stored in his brain. As he straddled the boards and hopped onto the ice, Carbonneau was already calculating the variables in his next matchup. Carbonneau is a righthanded shot who is strong drawing to his backhand, but he was having an off night. His opponent, Bob Corkum, is Phoenix's best face-off man; he is also a righthanded shot and most likely would try to draw the puck back to the point. By the time Carbonneau reached the face-off circle, he knew what he wanted to do.

The essence of face-off men is this: The mediocre ones remember their wins, the outstanding ones remember their losses. The night before, Carbonneau, who is among the best in NHL history (chart, page 67), had leaped off a couch in a hotel lobby to re-create a scene from 1985: Montreal Forum, Stanley Cup quarterfinals, early in overtime of Game 7, face-off against Peter Stastny of the Quebec Nordiques, to the right of Canadiens goalie Steve Penney. Carbonneau lost the face-off, then lost Stastny, who drew the puck to the point and skated to the net, where he tapped in the rebound of a shot by Pat Price.

Later, teammates tried to console Carbonneau, murmuring all the platitudes that could never change the outcome. "Losing that face-off really affected me," says Carbonneau, who spent 12 full seasons in Montreal. "It took a long, long time to recover. We had a chance to win the Stanley Cup that year. My worry was that the organization would never let me take another face-off in that situation again. It changed me as a player. It made me think harder about face-offs."

In the playoffs, which start this week, the importance of face-offs will be evident. New Jersey Devils coach Jacques Lemaire, the former Canadiens coach who sent Carbonneau out for his face-off epiphany in the last game he would coach for Montreal, will show his centers a videotape of opposing face-off men before each series. The Stars will have charts on how all their centers (any player can take a face-off, but it is usually the responsibility of the centers) have fared against each opponent's face-off men, so Hitchcock can get his best matchup on a big draw. In other locker rooms there will be tapes and talks and usually about 10 minutes of face-off drills at the end of each practice. On key draws, teams will send out a second center in case their top face-off man gets tossed from the circle for either trying to anticipate the drop of the puck too aggressively or failing to align properly in the circle. (It was often said that former Philadelphia Flyers captain Bobby Clarke sometimes would try to get himself and his opponent kicked out of a face-off because he knew his left wing, Bill Barber, was more adept at draws than any winger on the other team.) "Other than goaltending," says Derek Sanderson, the former Boston Bruins face-off magician, "the single most important part of hockey is the face-off."

Of course, not all face-offs carry equal significance—a neutral-zone draw in a 6-1 regular-season yawner is not nearly as important as an offensive-zone draw while trailing by a goal late in Game 7—but to Carbonneau there are no insignificant face-offs, just wrongheaded approaches to them. A seemingly unimportant draw in a mid-season game is a chance to experiment with technique or sharpen reflexes, or it might be a preview of a face-off against the same opponent in the last minute of regulation in mid-June.

"I try to win every draw," says Carbonneau, which is why he turns his right hand over midway down the shaft, knuckles up, like a backhand grip on a tennis racket, as he settles into a face-off circle. Carbonneau, who gets added strength on the draw by using that grip, might not have been the first to use it—he adopted it after that loss to Stastny—but his success has done much to popularize it. These days perhaps 40% of NHL centers use the backhand grip even if it denies them, as Sanderson argues, a strong second swipe at the puck if a face-off isn't won cleanly.

In the game last month against Phoenix, Carbonneau surveyed the Coyotes' alignment and pointed the blade of his stick at his right wing, Grant Marshall, whom he directed to move to another spot on the face-off circle. Then Carbonneau waved defenseman Dan Keczmer, who had been near the boards to his right, to a spot behind him. No matter how strong or quick a face-off man is, he needs his wingers and defensemen to control the puck after the draw. At last Carbonneau was satisfied. He put his stick on the ice, and waited for Corkum to do the same. "When the puck drops," Carbonneau says, "that's one of the only one-on-one battles in hockey."

The Numbers

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