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Dominating the dot

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks
John Travolta and Nicolas Cage tainted an important part of hockey 12 years ago.

When they swapped faces in the “blockbuster hit” Face/Off, they ridiculed a central facet of our beloved game. How dare they use a term meant to signify the commencement of on ice action by literally peeling their faces off.

In the hockey, faceoffs are no laughing matter. They are a key part of games as winning the battles that take place over the red dot can help win the war.

A higher faceoff percentage doesn’t always correlate into a victory when all is said and done, but as Alain Vigneault so elegantly put it last week, “any team in the NHL would rather start with the puck than chase it.”

Vigneault and GM Mike Gillis put a lot of focus on improving Vancouver’s faceoff percentage this year and it paid off with the Canucks ranking fifth overall during the regular season at 51.9%.

That figure was just a hair off the 52% of draws the Canucks won back in 1997-98, but it still ranks as the highest in the last 10 years.

Only four times over the last 11 seasons has Vancouver won at least 50% of its faceoffs. Ryan Kesler was a big reason the Canucks were able to climb above that hump this year as he was 16th in the league maintaining possession 54% of the time.

Vancouver’s prowess in the faceoff circle has carried over in the playoffs with the Canucks sitting second overall having won 54.3% of their draws through six games, although Kesler hasn’t held the hot stick.

Ryan Johnson and Kyle Wellwood have been especially potent in one-on-one battles; as of May 4, Johnson sat third in the NHL at 61%, with Wellwood 16th at 53.1% (for players who had taken at least 45 draws).

“It’s something I focus on and look at everyday,” said Johnson, who has helped the Canucks beat and tie the Blackhawks in the faceoff circle through two games.

“I look at tape and make sure I know who I’m going against. Because it is such a pivotal part of the game, the more information I can get, the better.”

A lot of people suggest that faceoff percentage is just another stat with dwindling significance that’s right up there with missed shots and giveaways.

The seven games that have already played out in the second round seem to support this notion as teams have won three times when winning the faceoff battle, won three times when losing it and won once when the teams finished tied.

That doesn’t mean things shouldn’t be taken seriously on draws, according to Johnson. He was quick to point out that winning faceoffs results in increased puck possession, which can lead to shots for or eliminating shots against, especially significant on special teams.

“Possession in this game is so key. On the penalty kill to win the draw and get the puck cleared down the ice can take 30-40 seconds off and on the flip side of that, to be able to win the draw on the power play gives us some extra time too, so it’s become such a huge part of each game.”

As the shot-blocking King of the World, Johnson knows a thing or two about the thankless jobs in hockey and winning faceoffs is one of them. Think about it - how often do you hear someone being praised for winning a draw if it takes their team 20 seconds to score afterwards? The win is long forgotten by then.

An afterthought to many, faceoffs are crucial to Johnson, so much so that he judges a lot of his play on any given night on how he performed in the circle.

“For me, I like to win every draw I take. I go into a game thinking I’m going to win every draw. There’s a lot more than just two guys involved in it, there’s five guys helping out, but that’s my expectation.”

Johnson’s strengths on the draw include power and quickness. He doesn’t play games on a faceoff, he just grunts out the win and rifles the puck back to his team.

For Wellwood there is a little smoke and mirrors involved in his faceoff strategy.

“I just try to jump the ref with my skate and block the guy’s stick from knocking the puck back,” Wellwood said proudly.

“This is something I’ve practiced since junior and I’ve gotten better at it over time and I use it when I really need to win the draw.”

Although Wellwood is effective at draws almost anytime, if the variables of playing at home, meaning he can get his stick down second, and going up against a left-handed player arise, a faceoff win is practically a lock for Vancouver.

Like Johnson, Wellwood also takes great pride in being on the winning end of draws more often than not because of what it can lead to for the Canucks.

“We take it really seriously because whenever the other team starts with the puck, you generally end up having to play part of the shift in your own end and that’s something that we know and the other team knows.

“If we win the draw, we get the puck in the other team’s zone and starting the shift like that usually ends up being a positive thing.”

Each game begins with a faceoff and more times than not the contest ends poorly for the team that doesn’t get the job done on draws.

The Canucks recognize this and are looking to dominate the dot in Game 3 against the Blackhawks.

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