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Taking care of the details: Stars excelling on face-offs

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Every once in a while, a quick scan of a game’s final scoresheet reveals some amazing numbers that fans may not have noticed as it went along.

For example, in the Dallas Stars’ 3-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers Tuesday night at the American Airlines Center, center Brad Richards won a ridiculous 15 face-offs while losing just one. 

A deeper look at the Stars’ face-off statistics shows that the club has been outstanding in that area lately, and it just may be one of many little details the squad has improved upon this season, all adding up to a stellar 26-13-5 record that has them leading the Pacific Division and third in the Western Conference standings. 

After winning 60 percent of their draws overall against Edmonton, the Stars boast a 58.1 percentage (going 197-142) over their last six games, dating back to their New Year’s Eve loss to Vancouver, another contest in which they won 60 percent of their face-offs. While their overall season mark of 49.5 percent ranks Dallas just 21st in the league, their efficiency over these last six games would put them ahead of even the Canucks’ NHL-best total of 56.4 percent. 

“I think it’s a credit to the guys, they’ve taken it upon themselves all year long to put a little more emphasis on it and work at it,” said Stars assistant coach Stu Barnes, who’s responsible for face-offs on the coaching staff and was a face-off expert himself during his playing days. “We do pre-game skate every game-day and we usually drop some pucks. The guys all want to get in and play a little game where they’re involved and working on it. Not only that, I think the wingers and the defensemen have been involved in trying to help our centermen win draws, so I think it’s been an all-around effort from the entire team. I think guys enjoy taking face-offs. It’s kind of a mini-game within the game, a quick little contest and it’s always fun. I think the guys have all committed to working at it.”

“I think going into a face-off, it’s just an attitude - it’s a one-on-one battle is what it is,” noted forward Adam Burish, who has gone 29-21 (58.0 percent) over the last six games and has a season mark of 51.6 percent. “I think the reason we’ve been good is our guys put a lot of pride in it and we work on it. We work on it a lot on game days, it kind of becomes a competition thing for us. It’s a pride thing, it’s a battle thing and you want to go in and you want to beat the guy.”

Last year, the Stars struggled on face-offs, winning 48.1 percent and finishing 26th in the 30-team league. The off-season addition of Burish as a free agent has clearly helped the club in the face-off circle, while also receiving a major boost in that area from Steve Ott, who has registered a stellar 57.9 rating so this year, which ranks him seventh overall in the entire NHL. Ott has been so impressive at the dot, he has already almost doubled the total number of face-offs he took all of last season, jumping from winning 56.8 percent of 352 draws in 73 contests in 2009-10 to lining up for 513 in 44 games so far in 2010-11.

Richards acknowledged it has been a point of emphasis.

“It’s been a focus this year, all year,” added Richards, who is 47-32 (59.5 percent) over the last six outings and sports a 50.4 percent face-off winning percentage on the season overall. “It’s something we had to fix. You look at the top teams in the league, they’re all good on face-offs and one face-off, getting possession, you never know what that can do in the game. You’re never going to win them all, but we have the mentality now that if we lose one, everyone is upset on the line. The centerman’s definitely upset, but the wingers are also upset they didn’t get it done. I don’t know if we had that last year. We’re all taking pride in that, guys are doing competitions in practice - it’s definitely a focus.” 

While it may seem like a minor aspect of the game, a detail that hardly ever impacts the final score, think again.  They may not lead directly to a goal on a regular basis, but the cumulative effect of face-offs can frequently influence the outcome of a game. 

“To me, it’s an important part of the game,” noted Burish, who usually specializes in defensive-zone draws. “It can mean you’re chasing the puck for your shift, you don’t have control of the puck. If you’re playing against a team’s top line, you want to keep the puck away from those guys and by winning a face-off, you do that. Offensive zone, you might have a chance to score and defensive zone, you limit their chances, so it’s a big point of the game.”

“Face-offs are so important,” added center Mike Ribeiro, who owns a 46.2 percent season mark, but is 39-35 (52.7 percent) over the last six contests. “It’s a small detail, but it becomes a big detail. (Tuesday), my first four face-offs I lost and I chased the puck for the whole first period, so you lose a shift just trying to get the puck back. It’s important. It makes a big difference at the end of the game, it’s puck possession and when you lose those draws, it makes me so mad.” 

And while it may seem like a simple procedure of the official dropping the puck and whichever player swipes his stick at it first wins the draw, it’s much more complicated than that. A lot of dynamics are at play during a face-off, including the rule stipulating that the road player has to put his stick down first, thus tipping off his intentions.

“I think hard work is a major part of it,” said Barnes, who won 54.7 percent of his face-offs during his final season in 2007-08. “Our guys have been committing to working on it and a couple of our guys have established themselves as real strong face-off guys this year. Part of it is technique as well, part of it is knowing your opponent, what a guy has been doing all game, what he’s good at, what he isn’t. And also, the other part of it is game strategy as well, knowing what time of the game it is, what the score is, where on the ice you’re taking the face-off. Those are all factors that play in that you need to throw into a pile before you go into a face-off.”  

“There’s technique in it, there’s a little bit of cheating involved in every draw, you’ve got to be able to cheat a little bit,” admitted Burish, who signed with Dallas last July after helping Chicago win the Stanley Cup a few weeks earlier. “A lot of it is timing, watching the ref’s hand and watching the puck drop and then some of it is knowing what the other guy’s going to do, some tendencies of the other guy. But at the end of the day, I think it just comes down to will, it comes down to wanting to win that draw more than the other guys.”

While the players do take note of what the opposing centers like to do, they don’t go quite so far as to pre-scout them by watching video.

“A lot of it’s done by memory,” said Ott, who has been red-hot lately, posting an amazing 52-31 record (62.7 percent) on draws in the last six games. “You face off against a guy a lot, especially your division (opponents), you kind of figure out their tendencies, and especially the good guys in the league, you kind of bear down and figure out what they’re doing. But me personally, I have my own way and my own strengths, and I kind of go to my strength no matter who I’m facing, and hopefully I’ll beat him with my strength.” 

“You know throughout the league who are good centermen or those that are better-than-average on face-offs,” Barnes stated. “As years go by or as a season goes by, you get to know what a guy’s good at or not good at and I think our guys are real good about having those discussions. We talk a little bit about it before games, in casual conversation, ‘Hey, this guy likes to do this, he tries this.’ Everybody’s chipped in their little piece of the pie and it seems to be working.” 

As for Richards’ magical night at the dot Tuesday night, it may just be a case of everything falling into place at the same time.

“It’s funny, he had a great night,” Barnes said of Richards’ performance. “He’s been good here for a while and everything just kind of lined up for him. You know, 15-1 nights don’t come along very often, but it’s always good to see a guy that’s worked at it get rewarded like he did.” 

It’s also good to see the hard work all the club’s centers have invested in that seemingly insignificant part of the game paying off, both in the circle and ultimately, on the scoreboard.

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