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Despite recent struggles, Penguins dominating on faceoffs this season

| Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, 10:21 p.m.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby (left) has won just under 53 percent of his faceoffs — a lower percentage than centers Evgeni Malkin, Brandon Sutter and Joe Vitale — but he often faces the opponent's top faceoff men, and he has taken far more draws than anyone else on the team.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Some concerning flaws have been evident during the Penguins' three-game losing streak.

Losing faceoffs isn't one of them.

The Penguins, a team that struggled with draws early in the Sidney Crosby era, are thriving like never before.

“They are such a dangerous team and can beat you in so many different ways,” Islanders center Frans Nielsen said. “And that's just one more thing that they do really, really well.”

Through their first 11 games, the Penguins have won 55.5 percent of faceoffs. Only Nashville has won a higher percentage of draws.

“Obviously we have a lot of guys who are good in that situation,” Penguins left wing Jussi Jokinen said. “It's an important thing for a team.”

Why are the Penguins better at winning draws than in previous seasons?

“I think it's simple enough. I mean, if you keep working at something like faceoffs, you can't (help but) get better at them,” center Joe Vitale said. “ I think that's something a lot of guys have done.”

Three Penguins centers — Evgeni Malkin, Brandon Sutter and Joe Vitale — are hovering between 57 and 58 percent on faceoffs.

Crosby is clicking at just less than 53 percent, which is more impressive when considering Crosby has taken 152 more faceoffs than any of his teammates and routinely is matched against the opposition's best faceoff men.

“We definitely follow Sid's lead,” Vitale said. “He's been incredible all year. I don't think people have any clue just how strong he is, but when he's taking draws, you can see it.”

Vitale insists that all of the centers prepare differently for maximum performance in the faceoff dot, but that hard work is the root of their success.

Even family members help out.

Vitale's wife plays the role of a linesman in the summer, dropping pucks in the driveway on sweltering St. Louis afternoons.

“We did it again this summer, and it seems to help,” he said. “She's all about making it a team effort to get better on faceoffs.”

Brianna Vitale wasn't on hand for on-ice workouts during training camp, but assistant coach Tony Granato was. Vitale credits him for much of his success.

“Tony worked with a lot of us during camp, and I think it really did help,” Vitale said. “You can see the difference in a lot of people so far.”

No one has been more impressive than Malkin, who is annually under 50 percent in the faceoff circle.

He plays on a line with Jokinen, who is a faceoff specialist. Jokinen, though, has been asked to take only 12 draws all season because of Malkin's proficiency.

Malkin is afforded the privilege of being able to cheat on draws. Should he get booted out of the circle, Jokinen will jump in and give the Penguins a favorable matchup anyway.

This line's ability to cleanly win draws could pay even more dividends when winger James Neal returns from injury. He has a penchant for scoring goals off faceoff wins, as he historically lines up a few feet behind Malkin on draws in the left-wing circle.

The way Malkin is going, Neal will receive plenty of good looks.

“It's definitely a weapon for us right now,” Vitale said. “We just want to keep it going.”

Note: Defenseman Rob Scuderi is not expected to play Monday against Carolina and is being evaluated in Pittsburgh after suffering a lower-body injury Saturday in Toronto.

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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