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Crosby Hones Craft in Faceoff Circle

by Dan Rosen / Pittsburgh Penguins
That's puck possession. That's more opportunity you have to hold on to the puck when you get out there for a shift. If you want to be put out there in the last minute of games you need to have responsibilities. If you're good on faceoffs you get that opportunity. - Sidney Crosby
NEW YORK -- When the Pittsburgh Penguins need to win a faceoff in their own zone, coach Dan Bylsma usually turns to the same person.

When they need to win a draw to keep the puck on a power play, Bylsma looks in the same direction.

Got to win a draw in the final minute of a game to seal a win or create a chance to tie the game? Same direction, same guy.

He wears No. 87 on his back.

It wasn't too long ago that former Penguins coach Michel Therrien couldn't trust Sidney Crosby to win an important faceoff anywhere on the ice because he gave the Penguins only a 50-50 shot at gaining possession of the puck.

Today, Crosby is the Penguins' faceoff specialist and one of the finest in the NHL.

In Pittsburgh's recent home-and-home sweep of the Rangers, he won 24 of 39 faceoffs and now is tied for eighth in the NHL with a 57.1-percent success rate on draws.

Crosby has won the most faceoffs (340) in the NHL and only Colorado's Paul Stastny has taken more (620-595). Of the 27 players who have taken at least 400 draws, only David Steckel (62.0) and Patrice Bergeron (57.7) have better percentages than Crosby.

"Because his number is so good we're starting to be able to utilize him as a faceoff guy should be utilized," Bylsma said. "In a game when you take 65 faceoffs, he's taking a third of the faceoffs, and when you put it down that he's around 60 percent, that means we're starting with the puck more."

Crosby was a shade over 51 percent in each of the last two seasons after winning a shade less than 50 percent of his draws in 2006-07 and only 45.5 percent in 2005-06.

He was 49 percent during the Penguins' 2008 run to the Stanley Cup Final, but 53 percent when they won the Cup last season. The extra four percent matters because it could have been the difference in a goal here and a goal there, and remember that the Penguins had to win a pair of Game 7s to win the Cup and were 6-3 in one-goal games.

"Pretty much every day and definitely every game-day I am working on faceoffs," Crosby said. "That's something I have tried to focus on. That's puck possession. That's more opportunity you have to hold on to the puck when you get out there for a shift. If you want to be put out there in the last minute of games you need to have responsibilities. If you're good on faceoffs you get that opportunity."

The work Crosby puts in isn't as simple as it may seem. Practicing the draw requires much more than just finding an assistant coach to drop puck after puck at his feet so he can work on his technique.

"There is a purpose to dropping pucks," said former NHL forward Tom Fitzgerald, the Penguins' assistant to the general manager who worked extensively with Crosby last season and especially in the playoffs while a member of Bylsma's coaching staff.

Fitzgerald told that the keys to Crosby's success are his anticipation and willingness to study and learn about his opponents.

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"He understands the nuances of going over the top, going underneath and studying guys," Fitzgerald said. "Sid is good, too, at just being by himself and having someone drop pucks so he could work on his quickness.

"He's worked at it and he continues to work at it because he wants to be the best at it."

For instance, during the Penguins' playoff series against Washington last season, Crosby was involved in a great one-on-one faceoff battle with David Steckel, who has six inches on Crosby.

Steckel owned Crosby at the beginning of the series, but Crosby worked to figure out what Steckel was doing. He had Bylsma impersonate Steckel in practice because Bylsma is around 6-foot-3 and has a long reach, so he at least resembles Steckel's size.

By Game 4, Steckel wasn't taking nearly as many draws against Crosby and Crosby was doing better in the ones that he did take against Steckel.

"I think that was the only time I ever worked with him (Bylsma)," Crosby said. "Steckel was tall with a long reach and he (Bylsma) was just doing what Steckel was doing on faceoffs and I was just trying to get around it."

Fitzgerald stressed to Crosby the importance of knowing the linesmen, because they all have different tendencies; now Crosby studies them, too.

"Each linesman is different and they might drop the puck right away when you put your stick down so you can anticipate," Fitzgerald said.

Crosby isn't normally one who takes a while to get it -- he had 39 goals and 102 points as an 18-year-old -- but success in the faceoff circle has been a gradual process. He first needed to figure out what works against some of the League's savvy vets.

"You want to be good at it and you practice it, but there are guys that have been doing it for a long time and it's natural to not be that good," Crosby said.

Jordan Staal, who quite often practices against Crosby, said the difference between No. 87 now as opposed to, say, three seasons ago is he's good on both sides of the stick and both sides of the ice.

All you have to do is look at the numbers for proof.

"He's always been strong on his backhand, but his forehand is now just as good," Staal said. "He does a great job of winning it to the boards. He's great on both sides of the ice, too. He has improved a lot, no question about it."

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Author: Dan Rosen | Staff Writer

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