Aside from crashing the net and putting shots on the opposing goal, Head Coach Todd McLellan has made faceoffs an important part of San Jose’s game. As a result, the Sharks are second in the National Hockey League in faceoff percentage at 53.4 percent behind Detroit.
According to McLellan, winning draws is more than just controlling the puck – it’s a measuring stick for how the game should be played.
“It’s a competitive situation and a one-on-one battle,” McLellan said.
“It’s you drawing a line in the sand and saying we want the puck,” said Assistant Coach Jay Woodcroft, who’s always working with players during practice and the morning pre-game skates on faceoffs.
“This year the coaching staff put so much more emphasis on it than any other year,” left wing Ryane Clowe
Heading into this week, the Sharks had three of the top 15 faceoff winners with Marcel Goc (sixth at 58 percent), (Joe Thornton
10th at 56.1) and Joe Pavelski
(15th at 54.4). The fourth primary faceoff man, Tomas Plihal, is at 51 percent.
Thornton’s success is for two reasons: outstanding hands and size (he’s 6-foot-4).
“I think being a bigger guy, you have a little better advantage,” Thornton said.
The man known as “Jumbo Joe” appreciates the work of smaller players, such as Pavelski, who stands 5-foot-11.
“The facoeff circle is who wants the puck more,” Thornton said. “It’s pure determination.”
“Every team talks about faceoffs,” Pavelski said, “but probably not to the level we do.”
Clowe credits Pavelski’s fundamentals for his success. “He has a pretty low center of gravity,” Clowe said. “He’s really strong on his stick.
Every player approaches faceoffs differently. Their style depends on the situation or the opponent.
“You go in with a plan,” Thornton said. “It depends on who you’re facing and their technique. In the defensive zone, you don’t want to lose any, so you might look to just tie them up.”
“You either go with your forehand or your backhand,” Goc said. “It depends on the zone you’re in and how the other guy lines up. Sometimes you try to block your guy and sometimes you try to put it right to another player. You have to know what works for you.”
Thornton and Pavelski have traditionally been strong in the faceoff circle, but Goc has grown into the role and Plihal has made adjustments as well.
“Marcel has grown into a reliable faceoff man who you can trust at any point in the game,” Woodcroft said. “When the coach puts you in for the last minute against Detroit, you have earned that. Plihal is not even a true center. He started the year in the 40s and is now above 50 percent.”
The pivot men are quick to credit their success to their wingers. Many times the centerman will essentially battle to a draw and then it is up to wings like Clowe, Patrick Marleau
or Mike Grier to either use their quickness or muscle to take control of the situation.
“The wingers play a big part,” Pavelski said. “When there are ties, they play just as big a part as you do.”
“We call them winger wins,” Woodcroft said.
“We take pride in helping those guys out when we can,” Clowe said.
Pavelski may be one of the NHL’s best in the category, but when he’s having an off night, he will defer for the team.
“If I’m struggling, I’ll tell Ryane to get in there,” Pavelski said.
The Sharks staff believes faceoffs should be worked on as much as other specialty areas of the game.
“We practice every day,” McLellan said. “Jay Woodcroft, that’s one of his responsibilities. He even prepares videos on the other team’s centermen.”
Winning faceoffs is just part of San Jose’s game plan.
“We want to be a puck possession team and it’s much easier when you start with the puck,” Woodcroft said.
There are two important benefits to winning the faceoff. First is time of possession in a game. Taking 60 percent of the faceoffs in a night can result in almost 20 percent more time with the puck.
Second, hockey shifts can be as short as 30 seconds. Losing a faceoff means a line may never control the puck during their time on ice.
“You can waste a shift if you lose the faceoff,” Clowe said.
Faceoffs have taken on another dynamic this year with power plays always beginning in the offensive zone.
“You can kill off the end of a penalty just by winning a faceoff,” Goc said. “They have to go all the way back to get the puck and it kills off time.”
“Pavs won the faceoff when we were facing a five-on-three against Edmonton and it took 20 seconds to go back and get it and move it back up,” McLellan said.
For the short term, the Sharks will have to settle for being second-best in the League. But similar to the points race, that’s not where they will stop.
“We won’t rest until we’re No. 1,” Woodcroft said.
The Sharks still hope to have Brad Lukowich, Jeremy Roenick and Tomas Plihal back during the homestand.
“In about every situation,” McLellan said about getting Lukowich, Roenick and Plihal back. “Torrey (Mitchell) and Marcel will be a little longer. (The lineup) could look the same or it could have one or two bodies back.”
San Jose will play hosts to Los Angeles on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at HP Pavilion and the game will be on CSN Bay Area, 98.5 KFOX and sjsharks.com. Tickets can be found at www.ticketmaster.com or at the HP Pavilion Ticket Office.