And as Red Wings center Kris Draper pointed out this morning, every play starts with an opportunity to gain possession by winning the face-off.
“It’s one of those intangibles that you talk about in a series,” said Draper, a veteran of 214 playoff games. “The team that wins more face-offs is going to have the puck more, and obviously we’re a puck-possession team, so that’s something we put a big onus on.
“Centers, every time they go in there, they want to win it, but there’s a plan. Wingers have to help out, D-men have to be ready, so really it’s just five guys on the ice just trying to win that first battle. That’s how every play starts.”
The Western Conference quarterfinals match-up between the Wings and the Phoenix Coyotes will feature two of the top face-off teams in the NHL. Detroit ranked third in the league, winning 51.9 percent of its draws. Meanwhile, Phoenix finished seventh at 51.4 percent.
With the exception of Tomas Holmstrom
– who is a perfect 100 percent after taking one draw all season – Draper leads the Wings in face-off win percentage.
One of the keys to winning, Draper said, is being as aggressive as possible, even if that means being kicked out of the face-off circle by the linesman. A center can be ejected from the face-off dot for various reasons, including moving too soon, not lining his stick or skate up properly, or one of his teammates jumps into the face-off circle too early.
“In the face-off circle, if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” Draper said. “You want to try to get that – you want that face-off. If you get a little jump on a guy, chances are you’re going to get it. The one good thing is with the way a lot of our lines are set up, everyone has a couple centermen, so the first guy can go in, kind of try to win that face-off knowing that the second guy is going to come in. Like I said, for us, guys go in with a plan, an idea, and everyone’s on board for knowing what they’re going to do to try to help that centerman win that draw.”
For Wings center Justin Abdelkader
, a main focus during a face-off is to make sure his opponent does not win the draw clean – straight back to one of his teammates – without Abdelkader at least slowing down the process.
“You never want to lose a draw clean,” Abdelkader said. “That’s one thing that I’ve been learning over the last few years. You don’t want to lose the draw clean when you’re lining up. That’s the most important thing for me, and just battling it out and trying to scratch and claw and win as much as you can.”
The main foes for the Wings in this opening series are Coyotes centers Eric Belanger (55.3 percent) and Vernon Fiddler (53.9 percent). Draper said that both of Phoenix’s veteran centers have all the skills that make for talented face-off men.
“Belanger and Fiddler: they’re good guys,” Draper said. “Good with their stick, good with their feet. So that’s something that always helps. Guys are going to try to tie up and try to kick it. In the defensive zone you know that they can use their glove as well; if it’s tied up and it’s in your feet you can use your glove to bat it back. So it’s just the little things. They’ve taken a lot of draws, you kind of get some little tricks you can use.”
Yet the Coyotes are just as concerned with the face-off men taking the draws for the home team in Games 1 and 2. The Wings get an extra advantage in games at Joe Louis Arena; the visiting team’s center has to put his stick on the ice first. That means the Wings’ center can analyze where the Coyotes’ center is trying to go with the draw, and adjust accordingly.
“They’ve got some good face-off men,” Coyotes forward Shane Doan said. “On top of that, they have guys who win battles. You look at (Todd) Bertuzzi and (Johan) Franzen on the walls; really help out their centers in winning battles. When they have the puck, they’re such a better team. Everyone wants to have it, the more you have it, the better off you are, and it starts with face-offs.”
Abdelkader acknowledged that the Wings’ centers will have a tough time in the face-off circle this series, but he pointed out that his teammates are up to the task.
“Belanger’s a really good centerman, he’s been a real good face-off guy for a lot of years. He’s a solid guy. (Martin) Hanzal’s a big guy; Fiddler’s been solid too throughout his career. So they’ve got some strong face-off men, and I think we’ve got some strong face-off men, too. It’s going to be a battle, but it’s one of the key stats that are becoming more and more important, winning face-offs and getting that puck.”