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Blackhawks’ faceoff success can make difference between winning, losing

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Updated: March 24, 2013 8:30PM



The morning skate is winding down. On one end of the ice, a handful of Blackhawks are playing target practice with posts and crossbars. On the other end, goalie Ray Emery sprawls around the crease, fielding shots from a few guys working on their close-range skills. A few others already have left for the dressing room.

Just outside one of the blue lines, Jonathan Toews and Jamal Mayers assume their usual positions, crouching on either side of the red dot on the ice. Assistant coach Jamie Kompon stands between them, puck in hand. A fraction of a second later, the puck disappears into a violent blur of stick blades and skate blades, only to pop out in any number of directions. Over and over, the puck drops, the blades crash, the puck escapes.

It looks random. It looks improvised. It looks completely beholden to the whims of fluky bounces and fortunate timing.

But it’s anything but. Winning faceoffs is an art, even if it looks completely abstract.

‘‘There are so many factors that go into it,’’ Mayers said. ‘‘If you just go up there without thinking and try to get the puck, you’re not going to get it.’’

Indeed, in that fraction of a second before the puck hits the ice, a savvy faceoff specialist — in the Hawks’ case, that’s Toews and Mayers — runs through an exhaustive mental checklist to increase his chances of winning the draw:

Which linesman is this? How does he usually drop the puck? Is the other guy a lefty or a righty? Is he on his backhand or forehand? Is he using a traditional grip or reversing his lower hand for more leverage? Where are his wingers lined up? In short, where is he trying to go with the puck, and what can I do to prevent it?

There’s plenty of homework involved, too. Some guys go in hard and lift your stick out of the way before going after the puck. Some guys go right for the puck. Some guys tie up your stick with theirs and kick the puck over to a waiting winger. Some guys, such as Toews, can win any which way.

Then there’s basic strategy. When the draw is in your defensive zone, you want to win it to the boards, never to the middle of the ice where an opponent can pounce on it for a scoring chance. When there are just a few seconds left in a period, you might go to one knee in case your opponent is trying to one-time a shot on goal right off the drop. And, of course, timing is everything once the puck leaves the ref’s hand.

Toews is one of the best in the league at draws. This season, he’s eighth in the league among players who’ve taken at least 100 faceoffs with a .597 winning percentage (355 wins, 240 losses). And every one counts. In the Hawks’ first regulation loss of the season March 8 in Colorado, Toews lost a draw in his own zone on an Avalanche power play. Exactly four seconds later, the puck was in the Hawks’ net.

There are dozens of faceoffs in a typical game. And any one of them might be the difference between winning and losing.

‘‘It makes a world of difference,’’ center Dave Bolland said. ‘‘That could be a goal, that could be a win, that could be anything. Ten seconds left in the game in your own zone, if they win it back, they have time to move it over and take a one-time. Anything can happen if you don’t win it.’’

Other than Toews, the Hawks have struggled at the dot, which is one reason general manager Stan Bowman suggested he might look to add a center as the April 3 trade deadline looms. Bolland is at 44.8 percent, Andrew Shaw at 44.2 percent and Marcus Kruger at 45.5 percent. Patrick Sharp, a winger by trade, was at 58.1 percent on 43 attempts before hurting his shoulder, and Mayers, who hasn’t played since March 10, is at 52.8 percent on 53 draws.

In all, the Hawks have won 888 faceoffs. Remarkably, they also have lost 888 faceoffs. Not surprisingly, that 50 percent rate puts them smack in the middle of the league.

‘‘It’s something we work on every day,’’ said Kruger, who was surprised at how much more attention is paid to the finer details, such as faceoffs, in North America compared with Europe.

Added Shaw, who is playing center for the first time as a pro this season: ‘‘I talk to Jamal and Toews, they’ve been around for a while and they’ve taken a lot of faceoffs. So they let me know who does what and how I can beat them or if I just need to tie them up and get help from a winger. It’s a tough job, and I’m glad they have confidence in me to give me that responsibility. You just have to keep trying to get better at it.’’

Even Toews and Mayers work on it. Even with all their institutional knowledge of opposing centers, even with all their natural skills and instincts, even with all the muscle memory they’ve built up through the years, they still go at it at the end of every morning skate. Sometimes Bolland, Shaw and Kruger join in. Sometimes they just stand around and watch the two masters try to outfox each other.

‘‘We both have a few different tricks that we use, so it’s like a chess match,’’ Mayers said with a smile. ‘‘We each have unique things we like to do, and trying to figure out what each of us is going to do is kind of fun. Obviously, we’re just pushing each other to get better at it.’’

The work never stops. Because while 59.7 percent is awfully good, 59.8 percent might make all the difference.

‘‘It’s a huge part of the game that no one really seems to think about much,’’ Toews said. ‘‘You want the puck every draw.’’



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