Victory in the balance
After each period of every game I attend, I pick up a stat sheet and look at two things: Which players have played the most minutes and how each team has done in the faceoff circle.
Just a habit I picked up a long time ago, but it often tells me about the story within the story we are seeing on the ice.
Since hockey is all about puck possession, who is controlling the game in the faceoff circle is all important. And you can often tell who is going to be involved in the important faceoffs in the waning moments of the game by the amount of ice time a coach is giving them as the game goes along.
And talk of faceoffs reminds me the most of a trip I took to Detroit to see the Red Wings host the in the Western Conference championship series following the 1994-95 season.
What made the upcoming Stanley Cup Finals matchup so important that season is that each of the 48 regular-season games and playoffs were played in the same conference similar to Major League baseball before inter-league play became a part of the game.
The first person I saw when I entered the press box that night was the late John Cunniff, a former NHL coach who was then scouting for the New Jersey Devils, who were coincidentally playing the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
I got to pick Cunniff's brains that night, sitting next to him. There was a lot of worry in his voice and on his face as he watched the Red Wings, who went 33-11-4 in the regular season.
"They have a lot of weapons," Cunniff said, talking about the eventual West champion Red Wings. "They were third in the League in goals (180) and first in goaltending (allowing 117). You see names like Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov and Dino Ciccarelli -- and Paul Coffey, a defenseman, led them in scoring.
"But what worries me most is how dominant they are on faceoffs. I've seen a couple of times in these playoffs when Detroit won a faceoff on a power play and the entire two minutes was spent in the opponent's zone -- or until a goal was scored by the Red Wings. That's scary."
Cunniff seemed to jot something down after every faceoff, from the size and strength the Keith Primeau used to maul faceoffs away from his opponent, to the guile of veteran Steve Yzerman and the quickness of Sergei Fedorov.
The Wings won the faceoff battle that night 63-39 and the game 2-1 in double overtime to win the best-of-seven series 4-1.
A few days later I was back in Detroit for the Finals, where I ran into old friend Scott Stevens, captain of the Devils.
I asked him what he feared most about the Red Wings -- and he, too, talked about the importance of battling with Detroit to win faceoffs.
"Some games it seemed like they had the puck for the entire two minutes of a power play -- or until they scored," Stevens said. "If you lose a power-play faceoff, you could lose 30 seconds of that power-play time. Same thing with a penalty kill. If you win that faceoff, you can gain 30 seconds of possession."
Simple terms. Long odds for the Devils -- it seemed, until Primeau sustained a stomach-muscle injury early in Game 1. The Red Wings still had Yzerman and Fedorov to take faceoffs, but Primeau had the hot hand.
The Red Wings lost Game 1, 2-1, and Primeau wound up missing Game 2 and playing at a less-than-effective level in Games 3 and 4. Without Primeau, Red Wings Coach Scotty Bowman knew the tide had turned before Game 2.
"We're going to try and play a game without faceoffs," he told me, laughing.