Penguins-Bruins: Why the Faceoff Discussion Needs Refocusing

Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE

Much has been said about the Penguins needing to improve their faceoff numbers against the superior Bruins. Here's why that discussion needs refocusing.

Faceoffs have been a popular topic of discussion in this hockey limbo preceding the Eastern Conference Finals, moreso on Pittsburgh's end, and for good reason: The Bruins are kinda good at them which could pose a threat to the Penguins' advancement in the playoffs.

Or does it?

Let me take you back to the Pens/Bruins game on St. Patrick's Day this season. With just under 16 minutes left in the third period, David Krejci crossed blades with Brandon Sutter in the Bruins offensive zone for a faceoff. Krejci won the draw back to Milan Lucic who shot/chipped the puck to Tomas Vokoun. He gloved it easily and kept the play going by pushing it to Matt Cooke who started the breakout. Suddenly, Sutter and Tyler Kennedy picked up a two-on-one that left Kennedy in all alone on Tuuka Rask who made the save to keep the score 2-1, saving Dougie Hamilton's hide in the process.

What I just described is exactly why I'm not getting too wrapped up in the faceoff chatter. In the span of about 10 seconds, the Bruins won an offensive zone faceoff but gave up a monster scoring opportunity. How much did winning that faceoff matter? Ultimately not very much, and it would've mattered less if Kennedy scored in the process. What mattered more was Vokoun making a save and smartly keeping the puck in play for the Pens to seamlessly counterattack.

Faceoffs are an important stat, that goes without saying, but they're also incredibly subjective when calculating the win-lose ratio. How many seconds does a team need to maintain possession to be declared the faceoff "winner"? Three seconds? Four? What if there's 10 seconds of exchanging possession?

I think we like to focus on faceoffs because it's a hard stat that draws a picture of a team's performance. After all, winning a majority of faceoffs puts a team in a better position to possess the puck, and possession time leads to goals which lead to wins.

Right?

Yes, but not always. It's interesting to me that the faceoffs have become a hot topic when the Pens swept the season series despite the Bruins winning 54%, 53%, and 60% of the faceoff battles. Keep in mind the Pens were without Sidney Crosby and James Neal the last game of the series and Evgeni Malkin was injured for all three games. The Pens won those games because they relentlessly attacked a goalie who was seeing everything and clawed their way out of a two goal deficit late in the game. The Pens had great showings from their own netminders, only allowing five goals in the series. They also rolled a top line of Crosby, Chris Kunitz, and Pascal Dupuis that looked unstoppable in every shift. There are so many other factors to keep in mind.

But I'll humor the faceoff discussion for a second. How does a team manage to win three games with less than a 50% faceoff success rate? By winning the right faceoffs. Not all faceoffs are equal in importance. Winning a defensive zone faceoff with 10 seconds left in a tie game is infinitely more important than winning the opening draw. However, they are weighed the same when calculating the percentages.

The Pens should be cognizant of faceoffs coming into Saturday's game, but I don't think it's more important because of the Bruins' faceoff weapons. No matter who the Pens play against, there will always be "must-win" faceoffs that have the potential to change the course of game, like a Neal faceoff play that breaks a tie late in the third. On the other hand, there will also be times when they lose a "must-win" faceoff and it won't make a difference anywhere but on the Event Summary and your blood pressure (see Jordan Staal's faceoff with 6.5 seconds left in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final).

By all means, let's make sure the Pens have studied tape on Patrice Bergeron and Krejci and work to win as many faceoffs as they can, but let's also make sure the Pens are prepared to adjust on the fly when that "must-win" faceoff is lost. I have much more faith in that aspect of the Pens' game than an arbitrary percentage that only tells one side of the story.

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