The face-off came in the Dallas Stars' defensive zone with 9.9
seconds left in the first period of a game last month against
the Phoenix Coyotes. It was one of those felicitous moments when
a fan can either get a running start toward the concession
stands or stay to watch hockey reveal itself. Dallas's Joe
Nieuwendyk, a good face-off man, had just been whipped twice
within a matter of seconds, and Stars coach Ken Hitchcock was
switching centers, sending Guy Carbonneau to take the draw in
the circle to the right of Dallas goalie Ed Belfour.
For the 38-year-old Carbonneau, it was the 10th face-off of the
period and maybe the 30,000th of his career. He has been on the
job regularly in the NHL since 1983-84, when he played for the
Montreal Canadiens, and has all sorts of information on opposing
centers stored in his brain. As he straddled the boards and
hopped onto the ice, Carbonneau was already calculating the
variables in his next matchup. Carbonneau is a righthanded shot
who is strong drawing to his backhand, but he was having an off
night. His opponent, Bob Corkum, is Phoenix's best face-off man;
he is also a righthanded shot and most likely would try to draw
the puck back to the point. By the time Carbonneau reached the
face-off circle, he knew what he wanted to do.
The essence of face-off men is this: The mediocre ones remember
their wins, the outstanding ones remember their losses. The
night before, Carbonneau, who is among the best in NHL history
(chart, page 67), had leaped off a couch in a hotel lobby to
re-create a scene from 1985: Montreal Forum, Stanley Cup
quarterfinals, early in overtime of Game 7, face-off against
Peter Stastny of the Quebec Nordiques, to the right of Canadiens
goalie Steve Penney. Carbonneau lost the face-off, then lost
Stastny, who drew the puck to the point and skated to the net,
where he tapped in the rebound of a shot by Pat Price.
April 26, 1998
Later, teammates tried to console Carbonneau, murmuring all the
platitudes that could never change the outcome. "Losing that
face-off really affected me," says Carbonneau, who spent 12 full
seasons in Montreal. "It took a long, long time to recover. We
had a chance to win the Stanley Cup that year. My worry was that
the organization would never let me take another face-off in
that situation again. It changed me as a player. It made me
think harder about face-offs."
In the playoffs, which start this week, the importance of
face-offs will be evident. New Jersey Devils coach Jacques
Lemaire, the former Canadiens coach who sent Carbonneau out for
his face-off epiphany in the last game he would coach for
Montreal, will show his centers a videotape of opposing face-off
men before each series. The Stars will have charts on how all
their centers (any player can take a face-off, but it is usually
the responsibility of the centers) have fared against each
opponent's face-off men, so Hitchcock can get his best matchup
on a big draw. In other locker rooms there will be tapes and
talks and usually about 10 minutes of face-off drills at the end
of each practice. On key draws, teams will send out a second
center in case their top face-off man gets tossed from the
circle for either trying to anticipate the drop of the puck too
aggressively or failing to align properly in the circle. (It was
often said that former Philadelphia Flyers captain Bobby Clarke
sometimes would try to get himself and his opponent kicked out
of a face-off because he knew his left wing, Bill Barber, was
more adept at draws than any winger on the other team.) "Other
than goaltending," says Derek Sanderson, the former Boston
Bruins face-off magician, "the single most important part of
hockey is the face-off."
Of course, not all face-offs carry equal significance--a
neutral-zone draw in a 6-1 regular-season yawner is not nearly
as important as an offensive-zone draw while trailing by a goal
late in Game 7--but to Carbonneau there are no insignificant
face-offs, just wrongheaded approaches to them. A seemingly
unimportant draw in a midseason game is a chance to experiment
with technique or sharpen reflexes, or it might be a preview of
a face-off against the same opponent in the last minute of
regulation in mid-June.
"I try to win every draw," says Carbonneau, which is why he
turns his right hand over midway down the shaft, knuckles up,
like a backhand grip on a tennis racket, as he settles into a
face-off circle. Carbonneau, who gets added strength on the draw
by using that grip, might not have been the first to use it--he
adopted it after that loss to Stastny--but his success has done
much to popularize it. These days perhaps 40% of NHL centers use
the backhand grip even if it denies them, as Sanderson argues, a
strong second swipe at the puck if a face-off isn't won cleanly.
In the game last month against Phoenix, Carbonneau surveyed the
Coyotes' alignment and pointed the blade of his stick at his
right wing, Grant Marshall, whom he directed to move to another
spot on the face-off circle. Then Carbonneau waved defenseman
Dan Keczmer, who had been near the boards to his right, to a
spot behind him. No matter how strong or quick a face-off man
is, he needs his wingers and defensemen to control the puck
after the draw. At last Carbonneau was satisfied. He put his
stick on the ice, and waited for Corkum to do the same. "When
the puck drops," Carbonneau says, "that's one of the only
one-on-one battles in hockey."
Do the math. If the Flyers, for instance, are killing a penalty
against the Pittsburgh Penguins and win a draw in the defensive
zone, they can ice the puck--forcing the Penguins to waste about
20 seconds retrieving it and setting up in the attacking zone.
Thus, one face-off can eat up one sixth of a two-minute power
Take the example a step further. The shift for a top power play
unit lasts just over a minute. If Philadelphia's Joel Otto beats
Pittsburgh's Ron Francis on the draw and the Flyers clear the
puck, Francis and linemates Jaromir Jagr and Stu Barnes will
spend a healthy part of their shift chasing and lugging the puck
instead of working it in the offensive zone. In this case, a
single face-off can tie up one third of a key shift.
When Sanderson was eight years old, he learned face-off math
from his father, Harold, as they watched the peerless Teeter
Kennedy take draws for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night
in Canada. "There were about 95 to 100 face-offs a game then,"
Sanderson says. "Icings, offsides, penalties, goals, more pucks
going into the stands because the glass wasn't as high as it is
now, goalies covering it, tie-ups in the corner. The way my
father figured, if you won a draw, it guaranteed your team at
least five seconds of clear puck possession. Don't you want to
control the puck several more minutes per game than the other
team? This isn't basketball, where you inbound the ball. Or
football, where you snap it. Or baseball, where you just throw
it. This is a fight over a loose puck, and the team that wins
those face-offs will win the game."
The numbers support Sanderson. According to the face-off
statistics for the just-completed season--the first time the NHL
tracked these stats officially--only two teams with sub-.500
records, the Vancouver Canucks and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks,
were among the top nine face-off teams in the league. Of the six
bona fide Stanley Cup contenders, only the Colorado Avalanche,
at 47.9%, had a losing face-off mark. "The more public this
becomes, the more aware players will be," says Dallas assistant
coach Doug Jarvis, a former face-off specialist who noticed that
opposing centers were concentrating harder against his team
after the Stars were tops in the league when the statistics for
October were released.
Of course, players like Sanderson have kept their own unofficial
records. He says that he won 37 straight draws in the 1969
playoffs before Boston coach Harry Sinden inexplicably pulled
him in favor of Phil Esposito for a late defensive-zone face-off
against Montreal's Ralph Backstrom. "We lost the draw, they
scored and it probably cost us the Cup," Sanderson says. "I'd
just beaten [Henri] Richard, Backstrom, Lemaire, [Jean] Beliveau
and Backstrom again, and on the last draw I took, I'd pulled it
like it was on a string and we froze the puck. Harry and I still
talk about it. He says, 'Yeah, I guess you were doing pretty
good.' I say, 'Harry, that's selective memory. Thirty-seven in a
row. I was doing great.'"
At NHL headquarters in Toronto during the winter of 1995-96,
league executives hunched over imaginary face-off dots, shifting
pieces of masking tape on the carpet. They were making
adjustments to the face-off circle in an effort to stop some of
the craftier players, who were taking advantage of opponents and
virtually stealing draws. "We had to make the face-offs fair
again," says Bryan Lewis, the NHL director of officiating, who
was one of the people kneeling on that carpet. The NHL, which
has changed the configuration of the circle 17 times since 1939,
took the new design from the broadloom to the ice, modified it
during a trial run in the East Coast Hockey League and unveiled
the changes at the start of the '96-97 season.
Now the red face-off dot appears to sit in the intersection of
two streets, which are formed by two sets of L-shaped lines
(photo, page 62). Each face-off man must have one skate inside
each of his two L's, and the visiting player must put his stick
down in a crescent of white space on his side of the red dot
before the home-team center does the same. With these few daubs
of paint, the NHL virtually eliminated face-off cheating.
"Before, the players were practically running the face-offs,"
says linesman Ray Scapinello, a 27-year veteran who has
officiated more NHL games than anyone else in history. "Now the
linesmen have control. Whoever came up with the new design
should get an award."
"The rules are a lot fairer," Nieuwendyk says. "It used to be
that the guy who cheated the best won the face-off."
The problem was, face-off men were always angling for an angle,
usually a 45-degree one. If a center could set himself on an
angle relative to his opponent--and there were no guidelines
other than a linesman's directive to stay square--he could more
easily spin through the circle, screen the opponent with his
body and kick the puck to a teammate.
Clarke was the king of the spinners-and-kickers, a small but
tough face-off man who had the speed and reflexes to maneuver
quickly. Of course, even with the new configuration, some
players still tie up an opponent's stick and win a draw with
their feet (Vancouver's Peter Zezel is superb at that), but
turning 180 degrees around the dot takes too long now. The new
rules have reduced the effectiveness of veteran
spinners-and-kickers such as Otto and the Stars' Brian
Skrudland. Coupled with the recent crackdown on obstruction--a
face-off man can't bowl over an opponent and let his defenseman
pick up the loose puck--the face-off loopholes have closed. A
center can still steal a draw by anticipating when the linesman
will drop the puck, but in a skill predicated on hand-eye
coordination and reaction time, that isn't cheating.
One of the few ways a face-off can be unfair is if a linesman
drops the puck on the edge of the dot, which is two feet in
diameter. Lemaire says he lost a crucial overtime draw to the
Buffalo Sabres' Gilbert Perreault in Game 5 of the 1975
semifinals when a linesman dropped the puck practically in
Perreault's skates. "I felt like [Canadiens coach] Scotty Bowman
lost confidence in me after that," Lemaire says. "He never
wanted to use me in those situations afterwards. For years, when
there was a defensive-zone face-off, I'd just skate to the
bench, pissed off, because I knew he wasn't going to use me.
Every time I talk to my centers about face-offs, I flash back to
that puck dropping."
On draws nowadays linesmen stand almost straight, with only a
slight knee flex, and they grip the puck with their palm facing
down before dropping it from just below the waist. In Lemaire's
era, linesmen would crouch and hold the puck out at knee level
before releasing it. Today the disk falls from a height of
almost three feet, higher when 6'9" linesman Mike Cvik handles
the draw. Clarke says dropping the puck from waist level causes
it to bounce too high once it hits the ice, introducing an
element of luck, but grumbling about face-offs was his
specialty. "Nobody is paying 30 bucks to watch you drop a puck,"
Clarke used to growl at an official who he thought didn't drop
it fast enough.
The rule of thumb is, 90% of the face-off men will draw to their
backhand 90% of the time. "Everybody's better on their backhand
because they're [raking] their entire blade over the entire
dot," says Philadelphia's Eric Lindros, the NHL's top face-off
man this season (chart, page 62). "You don't have as much
strength on your forehand as you do on your backhand." There is
a biomechanical explanation that involves the oblique
muscles--from the face-off stance, the muscles that control
trunk rotation have more range of motion and generate greater
speed turning to the backhand side--but that's oblique to most
players. All they know is, in critical situations they stick
with their best move.
The beauty of the face-off is not the similarity of styles among
centers, but their diversity. Take Stastny, who liked drawing to
his forehand. Or Francis, who wins as many of his face-offs with
his feet as he does with his stick. Or the black art of
Vancouver's Mark Messier, who, if he is losing consistently to a
centerman, might slash him as the puck is dropped to give his
opponent something to think about on subsequent draws. Or Hall
of Famer Milt Schmidt, a lefthanded shot who would wink at his
goalie as a signal that he was going to pull the puck back to
him on a face-off in the right circle. Or Carbonneau, a resolute
backhand artist who can win a face-off on the forehand or by
tying up his opponent's stick and kicking the puck to a teammate.
"There are some guys who are better on the left side, some on
the right," Hitchcock says. "What makes Carbo so good is he can
win anywhere on the ice."
Earlier this season, after a night of face-off futility against
Messier, Carbonneau faked going backhand and won a draw on his
forehand in the last minute to help preserve a win. If nothing
seems to be working, Carbonneau will have the team's video
coordinator splice together a tape of that night's face-offs so
he can have a quick tutorial between periods. "Some nights my
reflexes aren't there," Carbonneau says, "but if it's
mechanical, I'll try to find the flaw. On the nights when
nothing's working, I don't worry as much about winning [a draw]
as making sure the other guy doesn't get it clean."
Craig MacTavish took the most celebrated face-off in New York
Rangers history. The Rangers were protecting a 3-2 lead with 1.6
seconds left in Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup finals when
MacTavish squared off against Vancouver's Pavel Bure to the
right of New York goalie Mike Richter. "All the Canucks could do
was try a desperation shot off the draw," says MacTavish, now a
Rangers assistant coach. "I just wanted to tie up Bure's stick
and stop him from getting a clean shot--block his stick instead
of the puck." MacTavish did that, the puck trickled behind him
and the Rangers won their first Cup in 54 years.
Back to Phoenix, 9.9 seconds remaining, Carbonneau and Corkum,
one of the approximately 80,000 face-offs in the NHL this
season, one of the little things that can be so big. The puck
dropped, sticks flashed, and Carbonneau drew the puck behind him
to the spot where he had directed Keczmer. The defenseman
wheeled, carried the puck behind the net and ran out the clock.
Carbonneau was 4-6 on draws in the first period but was 15-5
over the last two periods and owned Corkum, 7-3 for the game.
Still, he was mediocre in the defensive zone (7-5), where the
best face-off men make their living. Carbonneau also scored a
goal and had an assist, but the Coyotes won the game. As he
walked to the bus, he put that aside. It wasn't the wins or
losses he was thinking about--it was the draws.
OFFICIALLY, THE BEST IN THE BUSINESS
At the end of this season, the first in which the NHL kept
face-off statistics, these were the leading face-off winners
(minimum 15% of team's face-offs).
PLAYER, TEAM W L PCT.
Eric Lindros, Flyers 798 529 .601
Joe Nieuwendyk, Stars 802 547 .595
Guy Carbonneau, Stars 828 567 .594
Mark Janssens, Coyotes 677 490 .580
Steve Yzerman, Red Wings 954 694 .579
Bobby Holik, Devils 743 545 .577
Mike Sillinger, Flyers 532 391 .576
Adam Oates, Capitals 1,172 862 .576
Stu Barnes, Penguins 716 528 .576
Steve Dubinsky, Blackhawks 580 428 .575
THE BEST EVER ON THE DRAW
Derek Sanderson (above, winning a draw against Philadelphia's
Rick MacLeish), is among the top 10 face-off men in league
history, according to a list compiled by SI in consultation with
longtime NHL observers.
PLAYER TEAMS NHL CAREER
1. Ted (Teeter) Kennedy Maple Leafs 1942-43 through '56-57
2. Stan Mikita Blackhawks 1958-59 through '79-80
3. Derek Sanderson Bruins, Rangers, 1965-66 through '77-78
Blues, Canucks, Penguins
4. Dave Keon Maple Leafs, Whalers 1960-61 through '81-82
5. Doug Jarvis Canadiens, Capitals, 1975-76 through '87-88
6. Bobby Clarke Flyers 1969-70 through '83-84
7. Guy Carbonneau Canadiens, Blues, Stars 1980-81 to present
8. Milt Schmidt Bruins 1936-37 through '54-55
9. Ron Francis Whalers, Penguins 1981-82 to present
10. Bryan Trottier Islanders, Penguins 1975-76 through '93-94
"If you won a draw, it guaranteed your team at least five
seconds of clear puck possession. Don't you want to control the
puck more than the other team?"
If Mark Messier is consistently losing face-offs, he might slash
his opponent as the puck is dropped to give him something to