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Getting the better of faceoffs not necessarily deciding factor in team's success

Jonathan Bombulie
| Tuesday, March 14, 2017, 6:09 p.m.
Sidney Crosby concentrates on a faceoff against the Devils on December 27, 2016, at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
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Sidney Crosby concentrates on a faceoff against the Devils on December 27, 2016, at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.

PHILADELPHIA — Last Friday night in Edmonton, the Penguins turned in one of the worst performances in franchise history in the faceoff circle.

The Oilers won 34 of 45 draws. Sidney Crosby won 6 of 21. Nick Bonino won 2 of 11. Evgeni Malkin took 1of 7.

And the Penguins won the game 3-2 in a shootout.

Coaches, players and analysts have harped on the importance of success in the faceoff circle pretty much since the game was invented, but it's fair to wonder how much it really matters in the grand scheme.

A trio of researchers at St. Lawrence University looked at the importance of faceoffs in a 2012 study. They found if a team improved its faceoff winning percentage 10 points, from 50 to 60 percent, it would win a total of two more games over a season.

In a league where the best faceoff team wins about 55 percent of its draws and the worst wins about 48, it's practically impossible to make much of a dent one way or the other.

This season, the Penguins are the fourth-worst faceoff team in the league, winning 47.9 percent of their draws. They were tied with Washington for the best record in the league coming into Tuesday night's action and were ranked in the top 10 in the most common metrics used to measure possession.

The Oilers, Sharks and Rangers also are among the bottom five faceoff teams in the league, and they're comfortably in playoff positions. The Avalanche, Red Wings and Hurricanes are among the top five faceoff teams in the league, and they won't be appearing in the postseason.

In other words, in the big picture, it's hard to draw any correlation between success in the circle and success in the standings.

“It's an interesting point. It is a little bit of a contrast,” center Matt Cullen said.

That's about as close as any player will come to conceding faceoffs really aren't that important. They've seen too much anecdotal evidence to the contrary over their careers to admit that.

“I feel like the ones in zone are a little more important, but neutral zone, if you lose it and get pinned in your end for 30 seconds, that one ended up being important, too,” Bonino said.

“Yeah, some are more important than others, but when you get possession, it always helps.”

Everyone remembers the iconic save Marc-Andre Fleury made on Nicklas Lidstrom at the buzzer to preserve a Game 7 victory for the Penguins in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final. If Jordan Staal had beaten Henrik Zetterberg on the game's final faceoff with 6.5 seconds left, however, it never would have come to that.

In a critical moment of a playoff game, with a team trying to hold onto a one-goal lead as its center takes a draw in the defensive zone, it doesn't matter one bit whether that team won 2,700 or 2,500 faceoffs during the regular season.

It matters quite a lot, however, which team wins the next one.

“That's a big thing, those critical draws in your own end,” Cullen said. “Especially in the playoffs, you look at the D-zone draws as so important. Offense is at a premium in the playoffs. It's tough to find space. Those faceoffs give you a free look. Those are important.

“We do talk a lot about coverage in our own end. If we lose a faceoff, we're pretty well prepared for what the other team's going to throw at us. That's something I think we've improved on. But if you can go in there and be confident in what you're doing and win it, it simplifies what you're doing.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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