| In some ways, it’s a little ironic that the Canucks winning goal in Calgary on Saturday came off a face-off. That’s because if there’s an area of concern for the hockey club just two games into the new season – admittedly a very small sample size – it’s in the circles where the Canucks rank 30th and last in the NHL winning just 35.9% of the face-offs they’ve taken so far (Atlanta is 29th at 42.7% while Phoenix leads the league winning 59.2%).
And even on the play in question late in overtime, the Flames were given credit for winning the draw. The Canucks, however, got the result that mattered most when Markus Naslund fished the puck out of the circle, got it back to Mattias Ohlund for a point shot and Daniel Sedin nudged the loose puck across the goal line and behind Mikka Kiprusoff.
The Canucks will take the win on the scoreboard, but they know they’ve got put an end to the constant losses whenever the puck is put into play. To that end, when the team returned to the ice Monday morning at GM Place, the Canucks spent the final 15 minutes of practice working on face-offs.
“It’s huge. This league is so tough right now. If the other team is starting with the puck seven or eight times out of ten, it’s tough,” says Henrik Sedin, who’s 18 for 37 (48.6%) on draws so far this season – easily the best on the hockey club. “They’re going to dump it in and get to forecheck you every time and you can’t stop that, so it’s huge.”
BEYOND THE CIRCLE
Face-off victories are particularly important when killing penalties. The Canucks won three of 10 face-offs against the Flames while short a man and just two of the 15 draws they took against San Jose while the Sharks had the power play in Friday’s season opener. Five of 25 (20%) simply isn’t going to cut it because teams are too good with the man-advantage and, even with Roberto Luongo as the last-line of defence, the Canucks are playing with fire if they think they can allow other teams that kind of puck possession especially on draws in their own zone.
“Usually I’m a pretty reliable face-off guy so to be struggling like I am it’s very frustrating because it’s such a big part of the game,” says newcomer Byron Ritchie who’s managed to win only three of the 19 face-offs (15.8%) he’s taken in a Canucks uniform. “It’s something I’m going to be working on and have to improve quickly.”
On Friday night, the Canucks won 20 of 49 face-offs against the Sharks (41%) and Saturday just 21 of 65 (32%) against the Flames. And while it is awfully early in the season to be sounding any kind of alarm, the weekend struggles followed a preseason during which the Canucks came out on top in the face-off circle in three of their eight exhibition games and won 286 of 603 (47.4%) of all draws.
Including preseason games, the Canucks have won the face-off battle only once in their last seven outings. So it’s clearly an area that needs to be addressed.
“Part of winning draws and starting with the puck is getting help from your teammates and jumping on loose pucks that are there. It’s not easy to win those draws clean and we probably haven’t spent as much time as we should have (practicing) so far,” Alain Vigneault says. “So in the next little while here when we practice, we’ll work on our face-offs. It’s an area that I know that our group can be better and it’s easier when you start with the puck than when you’re chasing it all the time.
HEALING WHAT AILS YOU
A big part of the problem has been injuries to the team’s men in the middle. Brendan Morrison missed much of the preseason with injuries, Ryan Kesler was hobbled too. And Byron Ritchie was only able to dress for the team’s final two exhibition games, so he’s still struggling to find his comfort level in the circles.
“I’m not going to use that as an excuse, but obviously the more you take, the better you’re going to be at them. Once you lose a few, it gets in your head. So next game, I’ve got to clear my mind and just go in fresh and be confident in there,” he explains.
After Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler has been the most productive Canuck on the draw so far this season winning 16 of the 42 face-offs he’s taken so far. Kesler was among those putting in extra time at the end of Monday’s practice, but says it’s difficult to simulate game conditions when you’re facing-off against teammates.
“It’s tough to work on in practice because our coaches aren’t NHL linesmen. Linesmen drop it fast and hard, so it’s all about timing and it takes game-timing to really improve on it,” he explains.
Brendan Morrison would like to do his part to help out, but a nagging wrist injury is preventing the veteran centre from taking many draws right now. He’s lined-up for just seven so far winning one of four on Friday night and one of three on Saturday (28.6%).
“A lot of times I find in the defensive zone you’re not trying to win a draw straight out. A lot of times you have to battle so right now I’m a little hesitant to get in those battles. Sometimes in the offensive zone, I’ll try to just pick one clean so there’s a little bit of a difference,” he says. “It’s only two games, but still it’s a stat that’s important – starting with the puck as opposed to chasing all night – so it’s something we’ve got to work on.”
That work began on Monday and the Canucks are hoping they’ll see an improvement as early as Wednesday when Philadelphia’s in town.