Often overlooked as trivial or a game of chance by the casual fan, face-offs can play a huge role in a hockey game. Just look at Friday’s Game 1 of the Round 2 playoff match-up between the Nashville Predators and the Phoenix Coyotes, where a face-off win by Martin Hanzal led directly to Ray Whitney’s game-winning goal in overtime.
Winning these set scrums for the puck gives your team possession and the ability to manage the game for a brief period of time. String a lot of these wins together and you can manage your risk to some degree by keeping the puck off your opponent’s sticks.
Entering Round 2 of the playoffs, the Predators and Coyotes were neck-and-neck in face-off performance: Phoenix ranked seventh in the playoffs (winning 50.6 percent of their draws), Nashville ranked eighth (50.1 percent). But the results weren’t nearly that even in Game 1, with the Predators winning just 32 of 78 face-offs (41 percent). It was Nashville’s worst performance in the face-off circle in six playoff games this April.
“To me the area that we have to be a lot better is face-offs,” Predators head coach Barry Trotz said after the game. “We ended up losing the game on a face-off. That first period it was 21 percent. That's not good enough for playoff hockey.”
Given the significance of the face-off, each team has its own specialist at the art/skill. Over the course of the regular season, Nashville’s Paul Gaustad and Phoenix’s Boyd Gordon ranked seventh (57.3 percent) and eighth (56.8) in the league, respectively. The two lived up to their advance billing in Game 1. Gaustad was dominant, winning nine of 13 draws (69 percent), and Gordon went 13 of 22 (59 percent).
But those two weren’t the difference in the series opener. Removing Gaustad’s impressive numbers, the Predators won just 23 of 65 face-offs taken—a success rate of 35 percent. Given the fact that coaches typically save face-off rock stars like Gaustad for the defensive zone draws—the ones closest to their net and therefore the most threatening—one can begin to see the circumstances that limited defenseman Shea Weber to just two shots on goal Friday. Weber, who led Nashville in shots through the first round, often gets to tee up his wicked slapshot from offensive-zone face-off wins. (See the clip below for an example from Game 1.)
“Winning a draw is not purely the centerman—it's the wingers helping out too,” Trotz said. “But the centermen have to be, I'll say, a lot more effective in the circle. If you're not winning the draws, at least go for the tie and tie 'em up and then get some help from your wingers.”