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THE PUCK DROPS HERE Add to ...

eduhatschek@globeandmail.com

For reasons that even he's not completely sure of, Dave King, a three-time coach of Canada's men's Olympic hockey team, knows there is one area of the international game in which Canada almost always holds an edge: faceoffs.

Think faceoffs don't matter? Consider that if Canada ends up playing Russia in the 2010 men's Olympic hockey final, the one sure-fire way to diminish the offensive contributions of Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin is to deny them the puck. Philosophically, Canada's head coach Mike Babcock - a protégé of King's, who shares his Saskatchewan roots - believes in playing a puck-possession game.

There is no better way to play that style than by winning a faceoff and gaining control of the puck.

Thankfully for Babcock's squad, it looks as if Canada will hold an edge in that department over just about any opponent it faces based on faceoff stats through the first third of the NHL season,.

Many of the NHL's top faceoff men are defensive specialists (Paul Gaustad of the Buffalo Sabres, Scott Nichol of the San Jose Sharks, David Steckel of the Washington Capitals) and thus won't qualify for their respective Olympic teams.

Among those who are candidates, Canada has three of the top 12 - Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby and Patrick Marleau - along with a fourth, Joe Thornton, who is a highly respectable 22nd. "Faceoff percentage is a stat that's often overlooked - except by coaches," King said. "Seriously, I can remember when we used to play the Russians a lot, and we would really bear down on neutral zone faceoffs.

"People think faceoffs are only important in both end zones, but that middle zone is important too, because if you win it, it allows you to be the team initiating the attack, not the team having to defend a shoot-in and a hard fore-check. Every time you win a neutral zone faceoff, you have the chance for a good entry and the chance for a good fore-check, so it puts you in a momentum situation."

Among the NHL's top Russian players, Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings is an excellent faceoff man (57.1 per cent, tied with Crosby, through last Tuesday). But after that, it drops off. Malkin, who played for King on the Russian club team Metallurg Magnitogorsk during the 2005-06 season, is only at 37.5 per cent and Nikolai Antropov is at 43 per cent, two of the lowest totals among regular centres playing in the NHL.

King coached in Russia, Sweden and Germany in the past and found that, with a few exceptions, European teams pay far less attention to faceoff skills than their North American counterparts.

"I can remember working with European centre men and always having to address the faceoffs, telling them, you gotta bear down, they're important in our game. A lot of European centre men have not been great faceoff guys. That isn't looked upon as a high priority within the definition of their position.

"In our game, all the way up, it's stressed and stressed and stressed. Maybe it's a smaller rink - the fact that you're always closer to the net, that faceoffs become so important. Don't forget, too, we played for years and years with the bluelines in further, closer to the nets. So a puck back to the point in those days was a scoring chance. Al MacInnis would just rip it. Now you've got the extra four feet and that makes a difference."

The value of winning a faceoff is magnified even further on special teams, according to King.

"If you're talking about the Russian power play, if you can win the PK [penalty kill]faceoff and make them spend 40 seconds of the two minutes on breakouts and entries, you're way ahead of the game.

"And if you win the faceoff on your own power play, it allows you to start in control. No breakout needed, no entry needed, you're right there."

King's only concern relative to Canada's prospects in the faceoff circle is the imbalance between right- and left-handed shots.

In general, the top faceoff men want to draw the puck to their backhands, if possible.

Among serious candidates for the Olympic team, Canada's top five faceoff men (Crosby, Toews, Marleau, Thornton and Mike Richards) are all left-handed shots. On the right side, the three most prominent candidates are all below 50 per cent in the circle, led by Jeff Carter (49.8), Ryan Getzlaf (49.5) and Steve Stamkos (48.7). Jarome Iginla, normally a right winger, has taken faceoffs in the past, but this year his percentage is a mediocre 39.5.

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