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nhl weekend

It's an accepted fact that all the best ones cheat.

This should be no small matter when talking about something that happens roughly twice as often in a typical NHL game as a shot on goal.

We speak, of course, of faceoffs, hockey's primal test of wills and an underappreciated element of today's game.

There are stylistic differences: You have your spin-and-kickers, the pitchfork tie-up guys, the low backhand sweepers (perfected by former Montreal Canadien Guy Carbonneau, one of the best draw takers in NHL history).

"Don't forget the intentional loss, feels like I've been doing that a lot this season," Joe Pavelski, a centre with the San Jose Sharks, says jokingly. He has been one of the NHL's premier faceoff men over the past four seasons (his current 51.4 per cent is below his career average, a fact that displeases him greatly).

For all the attention players pay to faceoffs - watching video, taking extra practice - Pavelski points out that it's still two sticks, one puck and a dot on the ice.

"There's only so many options," he says. "You can't hide out there. It's all about execution, quickness and strength."

Which helps explain why some players are constantly trying to gain an edge, and why intelligence-gathering and experience are key.

"You kind of keep a book on [opposing centres]without even really knowing or doing scouting," the Ottawa Senators' Jason Spezza says. "It comes with age and being around, I guess."

The 27-year-old pivot was a top-10 faceoff performer until last week, when the Sens played the Montreal Canadiens and Habs centre Tomas Plekanec went 20-6 in draws (Spezza was a miserable 8-for-23 overall and 4-for-13 against the Czech.)

The NHL doesn't keep statistics on the number of times players are waved out of the faceoff circle, but if it did, the Habs' Plekanec and Jeff Halpern would surely be near the top of the league.

"It's never me, it's the other guy who's cheating," Halpern says with a smile. He's one of the league's wiliest and most accomplished faceoff artists; he studied at the feet of Adam Oates and Dale Hunter as a Washington Capitals rookie and is one of only 17 NHL players above 55 per cent, the gold standard.

Plekanec is one of the centres fellow players most loudly complain about. Last year the Phoenix Coyotes' Eric Belanger, then of the Capitals, called him "one of the worst in the league." Another rival recently grumbled about how he's constantly using his feet to infringe on the puck drop.

But as former Canadien Dominic Moore, another faceoff specialist, once summed it up in an interview with, "If you're not cheating, you're not trying."

Though the NHL has tinkered with the configuration of the circles and done things like impose a time limit to make faceoffs fairer, there is back-sliding, not least on the quick faceoff rule as players dig in and carry running dialogues with the linesmen.

But that also relates to the overall importance of holding the edge in draws. As Halpern put it recently: "If you lose it, you spend the next 20 to 30 seconds running around and chasing after the puck. In today's game, 30 seconds is a long time."

It's not a direct correlation, but as a rule, teams with winning faceoff percentages fare better: 12 of the 17 teams currently above 50 per cent occupy a playoff position.

Pavelski reckons that the increased attention to detail and nuance - the byproduct of parity - has revived the ancient arts of the faceoff.

"I think it's one of the old skills that's coming back, especially among younger players," Pavelski says. "Everyone's in there with more intensity now."

At the head of the new school: the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby and fellow Team Canada centre Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Crosby has vastly improved his faceoff skills since coming into the league, and is now among the league leaders, although he sits a little ways behind Toews's freakish 59.9 per cent success rate, fourth best in the league (Crosby was at 56.1 going into the weekend games).

New Jersey's Travis Zajac, Boston's Patrice Bergeron, Colorado's Paul Statsny, Toronto's Tyler Bozak and Detroit's Darren Helm are also among the emerging faceoff kings of the under-25 set.

Crosby and Toews are the only players to have taken more than 700 draws, and though both are known primarily as offensive players, each takes the lion's share of his team's defensive draws.

The same is true of Plekanec and Spezza, who said he's constantly deconstructing his opponents' tendencies and sharpening his own skills.

"You always have to keep working on it, every day," he says.