Why Are Hockey People So Obsessed by Face-Offs?

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by Puck

Hockey Correspondent and Occasional Shakespeare Character, White Cover Magazine

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Face-offs are important, I guess.

How important? That’s really for debate. Well, it should be.

On Wednesday night, the Canucks and the Sharks will face off (*pun completely intended ) at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena. It will be a tight series — many say seven games — and each squad from the 2011 Western Conference Finals will fight for space and room to shoot. It’s going to come down to forwards, defencemen, and — as always — goaltending.

Series like this always come down to a couple great goals, a turnover deep in someone else’s zone, or a botched clearing attempt by last year’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Last time these teams met, it came down to the goaltending of Roberto Luongo (N/A) and a wacky stanchion bounce that benefitted the right-handed shot of Kevin Bieksa.

So, what will be the difference? What will be the one thing that shakes the tail? What will be that one moment that puts one team in the semi-finals and the other on the 14th green?

According to Sportsnet‘s Luke Fox, the difference will be the little dance two centres do at the start of a shift, the thing that accounts for about 5% of every possession.

Face-offs. Every hockey man’s favourite easy out for analyzation.

Matchup to watch: Face-offs. Winning 53.4 per cent of its draws, San Jose is the best face-off team in the West. Vancouver, who lost 104 of 181 set-pieces to the Sharks during their season series, ranks 25th overall in the category. In what looks to be a tight series, those third-period face-offs could decide a winner.”

So, yeah, the Sharks are really good at face-offs, right? They win 53.4% of their their face-offs, right?

Let’s just assume that line stays the same throughout this probable seven-game saga.

That means the Canucks would win 46.6% of their face-offs. So, the Sharks have a 6.8% advantage on 5% of any team’s possession at one time.

Boy. That’s specific.

Add in the fact that “winning a face-off” can mean the puck goes in any of each one degree of 360. It could be won if one centre pulls the puck back, or it could be won if they push it forward. While many highlights start at the draw, it’s the sequence that comes afterward which results in a goal scored. It’s the shot from the point, or the slot, or the tip-in from either. It’s the first pass after. It’s the possession game.

I have no idea who was first in the league in face-offs, but I know Chicago won the President’s Trophy and that Pittsburgh is damn good, as well.

(Look at the video atop this page. Do you see a face-off? Do you have any idea how the first 73.5 minutes of that game went? Do you need to? No. But, you know that Jonathan Quick can’t handle a puck and the St. Louis Blues have a killer forecheck.)

I prefer to look at wins, losses, goals scored, and goals allowed.

I don’t try to break every statistical category down into its least relevant common denominator.

I’m not trying to be Billy Beane.