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More faceoff plays leading to more goals off draws

by Kevin Weekes

There are way more goals being scored off faceoffs in the NHL than ever before.

The Carolina Hurricanes scored twice in the first period Tuesday and both were just seconds after one of the Staal brothers won a faceoff in the Pittsburgh Penguins' zone. The first was a power-play goal, and the second was a thing of beauty. Eric Staal won the faceoff back to his defenseman at the left point, Bobby Sanguinetti, who moved slightly to his right and snapped a shot through traffic for a goal.

Staal won the faceoff and moved to his right to provide a screen. The most underrated part of the whole play was forward Jiri Tlusty bumping Pittsburgh's Beau Bennett right after the draw -- this prevented him from getting out to cover Sanguinetti in time.

A lot of people talk about "puck-possession hockey," especially with the Detroit Red Wings in their heyday. Well, it is pretty tough to play "puck-possession hockey" if you don't have the puck. It is up for grabs on a faceoff, and you either have it or you're chasing it.

Look at Vancouver and how good they've been in the past few years -- first place in the League, Presidents' Trophy winners -- they were winning a lot of draws, right? That allowed those guys to make plays and generate offense and spend less time in their own zone.

Now look forward to this season. It is a strange season, a freak season. I've talked to a couple of different coaches about it, and here are some of the things they said when asked for reasons why there are more faceoff goals.

First of all, there are a lot of new faces in new places. Secondly, teams didn't have time for a proper training camp. Third of all, there are the new rules with faceoffs. Fourth, teams haven't had a lot of time to practice during the season.

A lot of guys aren't familiar with each and they can't read off each other in the defensive zone for that team's faceoff. It makes it a lot more difficult to defend. Plus guys are afraid to take penalties right off the draw in certain situations.

A faceoff is a very quick play. The linesman drops the puck and away you go. It is a split-second play. There is a split-second for the centerman to try and win the faceoff, and more importantly, there is a split-second after that for everyone else to try and make a read off the faceoff. You're got to make instant reads.

If you're on a new team or playing with a new defense partner and you haven't had time to practice this stuff -- put all of those factors together and for that split-second, if the offensive team runs the right play, you are on your heels and then bing-bang-boom -- it is in your net.

There have been a lot of goals this season that were both a direct and indirect result of winning an offensive-zone faceoff. It happens on almost a nightly basis.

Those factors I mentioned from the coaches I talked to are big reasons why and I agree with all of them. One thing the coaches didn't really talk about, but I know last season from a game I did on "Hockey Night In Canada," Winnipeg at Pittsburgh.

The Penguins scored two goals off faceoffs that day, and later I came to find out that they had a bunch of set plays to run off faceoffs. I think that is something more coaches, when they had extra time to prepare for the season to start during the work stoppage, were able to watch tape and whatever else. I think teams saw what Pittsburgh was doing, and I think a lot more teams are running set plays where they are encouraging guys to make certain plays based on the faceoff.

Defending faceoffs in your zone is not an easy task. Obviously the centerman is the key guy, but it isn't just him on the draw. It is everyone else around him who has to defend the draw. You have to organize everything -- what will the forwards do, what reads will the defensemen make.

Through the whole process everyone has to talk. The faceoff guy has to talk, the goalie has to be talking. If a centerman has been on a team for an extended period of time, his teammates will know if he goes backhand this is where they go, and if I lose it backhand this is where they go.

It is almost always about the worst-case scenario with a defensive-zone draw. What are you going to do if we lose it? A lot of it is making the right read and knowing where you're going if you lose the draw to a certain area -- not all of the responsibility is on the guy taking the draw.

You need quick, instant communication from everyone. They have to be talking right away. If you don't communicate, one of the forwards from the opposing team is going to set a pick -- just like Tlusty did against Pittsburgh -- and the puck is going to end up in your net. Or maybe they win it back to the point and there is a quick D-to-D pass and there's a deflection and they score.

It is really incumbent on the goalie to be talking. Obviously I get paid to talk now, but in the past when I was playing it wasn't just about making saves -- you have to talk and communication is so key.

I have to give "Heals," Glenn Healy, a lot of credit for this. I work with him on "Hockey Night In Canada," but I learned this from him back when I was first skating and playing with NHL guys. He was always talking as a goaltender, and obviously it has paid off for him now that he's on television.

It was always, "Hey, watch the pick," or, "Hey, watch this guy back door," -- the goalie always has to be yelling before the faceoff and helping the guys out in front of him.

Teams are scoring goals off faceoffs more than ever this season, so teams have to have that communication and the ability to defend set plays off draws.

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