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The secret art of winning an NHL faceoff

Hockey faceoffs have historically been about center vs. center, but winger vs. winger may be just as important. It’s the pivotal battle you likely missed.

“I try to win five draws for my center each and every night,” St. Louis Blues right winger David Perron declared after Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.

This appeared to be a strange sentiment from the career winger, who has taken an average of about one faceoff every two games over his 13 years in the NHL. Ryan O’Reilly, Perron’s regular centerman, takes over 20 per game.

But taking faceoffs wasn’t what Perron was talking about.

He was speaking about the secret war of the faceoff dot — not center vs. center, but winger vs. winger or winger vs. defenseman, jockeying to win the puck.

Hockey is perhaps the most random of sports.

And nothing represents the chaos of hockey more than its object of pursuit, the puck. You can predict, more or less, where a ball will bounce, off a wall, on the parquet, even slicing through the grass. But that puck — a six-ounce vulcanized rubber disc — can have a mind of its own.

The faceoff is another expression of this disorder: The referee, try as he might, will drop the puck differently every time. The puck might hit the ice on edge. And the faceoff doesn’t happen just once, like the jump ball might in an NBA game — this act of anarchy occurs about 60 times a night.

But hockey is also attempt after attempt to bring order to lawlessness. From a distance, the faceoff looks like 10 mice, five on each side, scurrying for one piece of cheese. It’s much more than that: Between opposing center and center, winger and winger, it’s a series of orchestrated battles to win the war for the puck.

But one of these faceoff battles receives significantly more fanfare than the others. Center vs. center is celebrated, while winger vs. winger is overlooked. That shouldn’t be the case.

”Coaches bring that up all the time,” a former NHL coach turned scout tells SB Nation. “They recognize the centerman is only 50 percent responsible for the faceoff. Wingers help the other 50 percent.”

”It could be the most under-appreciated thing in hockey because it gets you puck possession,” a former NHL winger turned scout adds.

Indeed, it’s a secret war with very tangible results.

Down 4-3, the San Jose Sharks needed the puck — and a goal — with 70 seconds left and ticking on Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.

Tomas Hertl and Tyler Bozak were the centermen of record on this draw, but it was the battle along the wall between 39-year-old Joe Thornton and 35-year-old Jay Bouwmeester that would make the difference.

Bozak won the faceoff into the corner. But Thornton drove the weight of his stick onto Bouwmeester’s, preventing the St. Louis defenseman from reaching the loose puck. Thornton, his stick establishing inside position, rimmed the puck back up the wall to Brent Burns.

Aided and abetted by full possession, Logan Couture would tie up the score. San Jose stole Game 3 in overtime.

”It’s determination and having a good stick,” Perron notes. “It’s at least a three-man faceoff now. Because a lot of pucks go sideways.”

Thornton certainly showed determination and a strong stick to ensure Sharks possession. But there’s more than one way to outdraw the opposition.

”Really good wingers are guys who anticipate the puck drop and get a jump on loose pucks,” observes the former NHL coach.

Jaden Schwartz got a jump here, spiriting the puck away from the Brayden Schenn-Couture tie-up at the dot. Seconds later, puck possession would lead to a Schwartz goal and a 2-0 St. Louis lead. Schwartz’s effort would set the Blues on a fast track to a pivotal Game 5 victory.

Not every winger competes for faceoffs in the same way, either.

”Sometimes, you have to jump in front of him. Sometimes, you lift his stick,” Perron says. “There’s guys who will let you jump and there’s guys who will fight every inch.”

No Shark lined up against Perron more often in the Western Conference Finals than left winger Evander Kane.

”Quite honestly, the first game, I wasn’t happy. I don’t think I helped [O’Reilly] at all,” Perron admits. “Kane waits until the last second and tries to get under your stick. I’m going to keep my stick as long as I can and try to go under his last second. A lot of times, he’s not letting me do that. So I’ll try to jump in front of him.”

This strategy backfired on Perron in Game 1. O’Reilly won the faceoff to Perron’s side, but Perron, perhaps reacting to Kane getting under his stick, tried to jump around. However, the puck was behind him.

Kane spun, reaching the puck first. He dumped it in, helping San Jose establish possession for 30 seconds, eventually forcing St. Louis to ice it. These were the 50-50 battles won that helped give the Sharks a series lead.

”You have to watch the puck. Just like the guy who’s taking the faceoff, you have to watch the puck, watch it come out of the linesman’s hand,” Kane points out. “It’s trying to get guys off balance. Try to get that inside position, depending on where the puck goes.”

By Game 6, however, Perron had adjusted.

Protecting a 4-1 lead, minutes away from eliminating San Jose, Tyler Bozak won the puck once again to Perron’s side. This time, Perron, instead of jumping in front of Kane, didn’t over anticipate, and used his body as a shield to keep Kane away from the puck. This afforded Perron’s teammate Colton Parayko a chance to dump the puck into the zone; the Blues would retrieve it, shaving 30 valuable seconds off the Sharks’ season.

Shortly thereafter, Ivan Barbashev potted an empty netter, sending St. Louis to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 49 years.

Perron’s work off the draw to gain possession won’t appear on any scoresheet, but his centerman appreciated it.

”It gives me a lot of confidence in the circle. If I don’t win it clean, I know he’s there and working,” O’Reilly says. “It’s tough in the circle, you lose a couple, you can get a little frustrated. When you have a guy like that, that’s worried about that, about possession, it shows how invested he is in winning. It shows a lot of character.”

”When you play with a guy like O’Reilly, you know he’s going to win at least 50 percent of his draws,” Perron says of his teammate, who has won 57.9 percent of his faceoffs since 2015-16. That’s good for second in the league. “You can help him get to 55, 60 percent.”

It’s an art, a winger helping his center win a faceoff. So who are the artists? What Patrice Bergeron is to two-way centers, who’s the Bergeron of faceoff-winning wingers?

Perron cites Schwartz and Alexander Steen, but he can’t offer a “gold standard” winger.

In fact, among Perron, Timo Meier, Gustav Nyquist, and two former NHL wingers turned scouts, all failed to name a winger who wasn’t a teammate.

“Nothing I’ve thought about,” Nyquist acknowledges. “It’s a good question, actually.”

This is perhaps the best illustration of how under-appreciated the art is, that even its practitioners can’t identify its masters.

”It’s hard to scout,” the former NHL winger says. “It takes a lot of watching and scouting of that area to figure out who that person is and why.”

Throughout his career, however, it’s been easy for Perron to identify fellow wingers who weren’t good at this job: “There are guys, without mentioning names, on other teams that I played for, who basically just sit back and wait for the results.”

Perhaps then, a winger’s role on the faceoff is like so many unheralded but absolutely essential jobs on the ice, in day-to-day life: You don’t notice until it’s not being done.