The importance of faceoffs cannot be stressed enough, according to coaches at every level of competitive hockey.
From the time a player begins first pick up a stick, coaches harp on the importance of winning possession of the puck by dominating in the faceoff circle. At each level, the mantra is repeated -- sometimes obnoxiously, to the players that have had the same message drilled into their brains each winter.
Sometimes words are not enough. On occasion, even the most attentive players tune out the rants and raves of the best coaches. That's why a motivational example can come in handy.
Just ask Mike Babcock, the second-year coach of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
Babcock reached the Stanley Cup Finals in his first season behind the bench, instilling a back-to-the-basics work ethic in his team that served the Ducks so well. That attention to detail, coupled with the spectacular goaltending of J.S. Giguere, delivered the underdog Might Ducks to the Stanley Cup Finals against the much more established New Jersey Devils.
A major tenet of Babcock's fundamental hockey involved faceoffs, as he explained in last year's postseason.
"It's the easiest 50-50 puck in the game," said Babcock, who has stressed faceoff proficiency since taking over the club last September. "Why would you chase the puck if you can have it? Why would you play defense, if you can play offense. It just seems like common sense."
In Babcock's first season, it was indeed common sense for the Ducks. They entered the postseason with the best faceoff percentage of any team during the 2002-03 regular season, winning 55.2 percent of its draws.
But, again that was merely a number, that is until the importance of winning draws came fully to light in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Already trailing the Devils two games to none, the Ducks were locked in a 2-2 tie with New Jersey in overtime of Game 3. If the Devils scored the game-winning goal there, the series was all but over.
But, the Devils did not win. Instead, the Mighty Ducks clawed their way back into the series with perhaps the most dramatic goal in franchise history.
At almost the seven-minute mark of the first overtime, Adam Oates lined up against Pascal Rheaume for an offensive-zone faceoff. There, he won the draw cleanly, pulling it deftly back to defenseman Ruslan Salei. With the Ducks' forwards tying up the Devils' players pursuing the puck, Salei had just enough time to fire a crisp shot that beat Martin Brodeur to the far side for the series-changing victory.
From there, the Ducks turned the series from a potential rout into a nip-and-tuck affair that wasn't decided until New Jersey turned in a 3-0 victory in the do-or-die Game 7.
Not only did Oates' faceoff win provide immediate dividends, mainly getting Anaheim back into the series; it also provided that motivational tool that all coaches need to hammer home their point.
Now, when his team starts slacking off in the circle, Babcock can just pop in the tape of Salei's season-saving goal. The players can sit and watch Oates, one of the game's best faceoff men, work his magic against Rheaume and then watch Salei convert with a quick shot.
Suitably refreshed, the Ducks centermen will not only have a vision of success in their mind, but also a reminder that sometimes it is better not to lose a faceoff than gun for an outright win.
Rheaume was inconsolable after losing the draw to Oates, realizing his non-performance allowed the Mighty Ducks off the mat.
"There is nothing much to say," a depressed Rheaume said at the time. "I lost the draw. I lost it clean. Instead of taking it on my backhand, I took it on my forehand and he won it clean. I can't allow myself to lose a faceoff clean like that, especially in overtime."
In fact, says Ducks' center Jason Krog, the need not to lose a faceoff, may in the end, outweigh the desire to go for a win. Krog was one of Anaheim's better faceoff men in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, winning 55.6-percent of his draws. While he enjoyed Oates' heroics as much as anybody, the play also sobered him up to his responsibilities in the circle. It is a lesson that remains fresh almost a month into the 2003-04 season, five months removed from Oates heroics.
"You want to try to win every draw, obviously, but anytime your in an offensive or defensive draw your obviously going to focus on it more because it can turn the game around," said Krog before a late-October game against the New York Rangers. "I go out there and try to win it, but I'm fully focused on trying to tie the guy up or whatever, make sure the puck goes toward the wall. You need to make sure you don't lose it clean."
A lesson that still remains fresh on the videotape for Babcock to cue anytime he feels words are not enough to drive home that important point.