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Luck Of The Draw

February 20, 2013

There’s a saying about scoring goals that goes, “They don’t ask how, they ask how many.” Different skills are required for scoring goals than are needed for winning face-offs. But face-offs won or lost can become the building blocks of goals – or goals against.


With face-offs, they don’t ask how. They ask how many. And they definitely ask when.


During the life of Washington’s recent three-game winning streak, the Caps rolled up a solid streak of success in the face-off circle as well. They were better than 50% from the dot in each of those games, getting the better of the opposition in face-offs in as many as three straight games for the first time this season.


Washington went 6-for-9 (66.7%) in power-play face-offs and an unholy 18-for-20 (90%) in shorthanded draws during the life of that three-game winning streak.


On Sunday in New York against the Rangers, the Caps’ face-off streak continued. Washington won 53% of its draws on the day. But the Caps were just 2-for-6 (33.3%) on power-play face-offs and they were an ordinary 4-for-8 (50%) on shorthanded draws.


Washington’s winning streak came to an end in a 2-1 loss to the Rangers. As is often the case in close games, you can find a face-off or two or three that had an impact on the contest’s outcome. Here’s a look at three third-period draws that were critical in the outcome of Sunday’s game.


First was a defensive zone draw for Washington at 4:06 of the third period with the game even at 1-1. It was Mike Ribeiro’s line’s turn to take the ice, and Caps coach Adam Oates sent the left-handed Ribeiro along with wingers Jason Chimera and Alex Ovechkin and defensemen Karl Alzner and Tomas Kundratek out to take that right dot draw. Right-handed pivots are generally more effective on right dot draws, lefties more effective on the left.


For lefty Rangers center Brad Richards, this was a left-dot, offensive-zone draw. The puck drops, and it’s up for grabs. Ribeiro tries to muscle Richards off, but Rangers winger Ryan Callahan is able to get a stick on the puck and send it toward the side of the Washington net, where it is swatted to the corner by Caps goalie Braden Holtby. Kundratek and Callahan go off in pursuit, and the puck slides up the left side wall – the same side the draw was on – where New York’s Marian Gaborik taps it back toward the corner.


Now it’s Alzner and Richards who are in after it. Richards is already in the corner; he gets a stick on the puck as Alzner pursues him from behind. The Caps defenseman slides his stick between Richards’ legs and shoves the New York center, but as he does so Richards pivots to his forehand and goes down. A tripping call is made on Alzner, sending the Caps shorthanded at a crucial juncture of the game.


I asked Alzner what goes through his mind in the immediate aftermath of a lost defensive zone draw such as that one.


“The toughest thing is reading what kind of play they’re going to run,” says Alzner.  “A lot of teams are running tons of face-off plays now, switching wingers with wingers, centermen going up high. And the hardest part is reading which guy is yours.


“Usually our centerman has to release his guy and go to somewhere else. The toughest thing is reading that, knowing which one to take. Because if you mess up for a second, they go to the net, right?


“It happened to us [on Thursday] against Tampa, I think it was on their second goal the last time we played them. It’s tough. You’ve got to find the guy quick. There have been a lot of times this year where we haven’t found them quick enough and a lot of times where we’ve done it perfectly. We’ve got to win the draws, I guess that’s the thing. And it’s nice that the guys have been doing that for us.”


Caps forward Matt Hendricks was not on the ice for this draw, but he echoed Alzner’s insight into the mindset of reacting in the defensive zone in the immediate aftermath of a lost draw.


“Depending on the situation obviously and who you’re playing against,” says Hendricks, “that’s the first thing that goes through your head. If you’re out there against Richards and [Rick] Nash and Gaborik, as a centerman if you lose that draw you really have to watch all of them. Because they roll and they like to play head games with you on who has who and who’s covering who. You’ve got to watch that.


“Usually as a centerman, you’re going to have the high roll. If the centerman goes to the net and the winger pops high, you’ve got to take the guy that’s high. And they’ve got a good defense corps, too, that can really shoot the puck. They’ve got a lot of threats out there. The best way to do it in my mind is to win the face-off.”


Ribeiro came oh-so-close to winning this draw. And had he done so, the Alzner penalty – a borderline call – never would have occurred. But it did, leading to another defensive zone draw for Washington on the same right dot. This time, right-handed Caps center Jay Beagle was assigned to go up against Richards.


As the Caps’ lone right-handed pivot, Beagle gets a lot of right-dot assignments. And he’s generally pretty good, one of Washington’s most consistent face-off men at 56.5% on the season. But Richards bested him on this one, winning it cleanly back to Nash at the left point. With Beagle shooting out toward Nash in pursuit, the big winger swivels and dishes back to Richards, who has filled in just below the left point. It’s the first of a series of three quick, sharp passes that zig-zag the ice and end up giving New York’s Derek Stepan an easy tap-in at the left post for what proves to be the game-winning goal.


The goal comes just seven seconds after Alzner was seated in the box, and a mere 19 seconds after Richards beat Ribeiro on that initial defensive zone draw. Two face-offs in less than half a minute have altered the complexion of the game.


“It’s huge,” notes Beagle of that face-off loss. “Richards wins that draw clean on me and they get a goal. It’s as simple as that. You win that draw, it could get cleared. It’s that big. Face-offs are that big.


“I’ve always struggled against Richards. In the playoffs I remember just having a battle against him. He’s one of the harder guys for me on face-offs. It’s obviously huge on the PK. If you can snap it behind you and give your defense a chance to clear it, that kills 15 seconds off the clock on the PK. Instead of being in your zone, stuck and being hemmed in and having to wait for them to make a bobble, you get a chance to poke it and get it down. It’s obviously a 50/50 puck on face-offs, and you’ve got to win those. That’s why we work on it so much in practice.”


A few minutes later, New York ices the puck. It gives Washington an opportunity for a right-dot, offensive zone draw with 11:40 left in the game. The Caps have created some offense right off the draw on a few occasions this season, and they’re hoping for some more face-off magic.


Oates sends Beagle out for the crucial draw, along with Hendricks – his usual left winger – and Ovechkin, who normally plays on Ribeiro’s line. Clearly, the idea is to win the draw and try to set up Ovechkin for a quick shot on net.


“Every face-off is really important,” notes Beagle. “But when you’re in the offensive zone and you’re down a goal, if you get put out there it’s just as important as when you’re up a goal and you get put out on the draw in the defensive zone. You need to do a job.


“Face-offs are obviously really important. You win them and you get possession, you lose them and you’re chasing. When you’re down 2-1, I’m trying to create something off the face-off, trying to make a quick play and get something on net. And if you do win it, to get possession down there. Especially when you’re out there with Ovi, you’ve got to try to generate something out there because he is dangerous.”


Beagle is facing left-handed New York center Brian Boyle, whose shift has now surpassed one minute in length. Boyle is likely tired, so if the Caps can start a cycle they might be able to wear down the Rangers in their own end, maybe draw a penalty or score the tying goal.


“Ovi is used to a lefty center,” observes Beagle. “So off the face-off he is always [positioned] off their left hip. So on that draw, I told him to get on my right hip. Since I’m a righty, I’m trying to win on my right hip, my right foot. So I just told him to move over a little bit, but that was the only adjustment we needed to make there. Obviously if I win it, he’s going to try to shoot it. If I win it clean enough to him and he has a lane, he is going to shoot it. If not, he is going to get it to the D or we’re going to put it deep and we’re going to go to work.”


Beagle gets the best of Boyle on the draw, but the puck rattles around a tangle of legs and squirts into the right corner. Hendricks gets in after it and sends it out to the right point for Caps defenseman John Carlson. Carlson rolls it back down the wall and around behind the New York net. Ovechkin claims it on the left half-wall and backhands it behind him into the corner for Beagle, and the Caps have the makings of a cycle here.


Beagle beats his man to the puck and shovels it along to Hendricks, who has eluded his man and is alone below the goal line on the right side of the New York net. Hendricks draws the puck to his forehand as he pulls it out in front for a good scoring chance; his angle is low but he’s close to the net and has just enough time and space to try to put a shot far side.


Hendricks snaps a wrister from 11 feet, and New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist makes the save with the crook of his right arm and the material of his sweater, then tries to clutch it between his arm and right leg pad, while Ovechkin, Beagle and every New York skater collapses on the crease.


The whistle blows, although the puck can clearly be seen lying just in front of Lundqvist’s left pad. The quick whistle likely doesn’t hurt the Caps; the New York skaters were in good position in front and Ovechkin – the likeliest Washington skater to reach the loose puck – was effectively boxed out by Boyle.


Beagle did his job; he won this key draw. The Caps were able to get a great scoring chance. They did everything they wanted to do on this offensive zone draw, short of scoring.


Naturally, it’s the one that got away that Beagle remembers most two days later.


“Richards either wins it clean or he loses it clean,” says Beagle. “It’s such a toss-up. Sometimes I snap it right back so clean, and sometimes – like he did on that one – he snaps it right to Nash.


“When he won that draw, I just think to get out and get in position so it’s not a quick, one-shot play. It obviously fazes me. When you lose it right away, your initial thought is words you can’t say. But there are still four guys out there, and we believe we’re going to get the job done. It’s not the end of the world, but we’ve obviously just made it harder on ourselves.


“You never want to let down the guys. When you lose a draw that big you feel like you let down the guys on the ice there. I want to win it for them. I want to win it for the guys on the bench. That’s a big draw. I take pride in not losing many of those. I’ll keep working on getting better at face-offs.”


Although the Caps would win most of the face-offs on this night, two that really mattered got away from them in span of just seconds. And even though the Caps won another important offensive-zone face-off late in the game, a draw win that could have enabled them to draw even, they weren’t able to cash in.


There will be other games, other draws. You win some. You lose some. Strength plays a role, as does skill. Support from your wingers is crucial. And sometimes, as Beagle noted, “It’s such a toss-up.”


The luck of the draw.