BOSTON | The Boston Bruins are big and strong all over the ice. With a lineup that includes Milan Lucic and Zdeno Chara, there’s plenty of muscle to go around.
But where the Bruins dominate better than any other team in the league is in the faceoff circle, winning draws at a 54.4 percent clip. Patrice Bergeron (third in the NHL at 58.8) leads the way, but it’s a team-wide commitment that goes a long way.
“I think we’re all centermen that take a lot of pride in it,” Bergeron said. “When you go into a faceoff, if you have the mindset that you want to win it, it’s going to make a big difference. If you go in there and you really don’t pay any attention to it, and you just want to think about your play after the faceoff, obviously it’s not going to be successful. It starts on the faceoff. If you get the puck, your team’s going to start with it most often than not.”
That sets up the Bruins’ whole game. Of course they can win physical battles, but excelling on faceoffs jumpstarts the offense.
The Washington Capitals are as aware of that as any opponent, yet for the second straight game against the Bruins, Dale Hunter is opting to scratch Jeff Halpern, his best faceoff guy who ranks sixth in the league. Jay Beagle’s improved performance there (58.4 percent in the past 10 games) was the coach’s rationale. Hunter also pointed to Keith Aucoin’s 7-for-8 showing Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres.
Over the past 10 games, though, the numbers aren’t pretty. Brooks Laich has seen the lion’s share of draws with 170 but converted on just 76 of them. Mathieu Perreault has been more than proficient at 54.3 percent, though Aucoin has struggled at 42.6.
Laich knows he and the Caps’ other centers need to be strong there, but Boston shows the importance of wingers when it comes to winning faceoffs.
“Their wingers are very very active jumping off faceoffs. If you’re gonna be a good faceoff team, your centermen are going to have to win you draws, but your wingers are just as important,” Laich said. “For us as centermen it’s a big task, but we need a little bit of help. We tie up a draw we want that to be a win from our wingers.”
No time was that more evident than late in the first period against the Bruins on March 10. Beagle won the puck back from Bergeron, but Lucic beat Matt Hendricks to the puck and snapped a shot past Tomas Vokoun.
“Anytime you gain any sort of ground, you knock it a foot or two back, that should be a win. That should be automatic,” Laich said. “I know when I played wing, I tried to jump as much as possible. Maybe that’s coming from a person that has played center and wants active wingers. If your wingers can do that for you, it really helps your night.”
Beagle has made Halpern obsolete with his penalty-killing and faceoff prowess in recent weeks. Laich said some wingers need to be reminded to help out, though Beagle noted that Hendricks and Troy Brouwer have aided his success.
“The compete level of your wingers is big if you want to win draws,” Beagle said. “Hendy and Brouw have been great for me. It’s something I don’t have to tell them anymore. They go out there and they know they’re going to help, and vice versa, I help Hendy when he’s taking the draws.”
The four centers in the Caps’ lineup Thursday have won just 49.8 percent of draws over the past 10 games. It’s incumbent on specifically Laich and Brouwer to do a better job than that when going up against Bergeron, Chris Kelly (51.8 percent) and David Krejci (51.8).
Pre-scouting and video with assistant coach and ex-NHL center Dean Evason will help, players said. But it’s all about executing.
“Sometimes we’re a little more aggressive, or sometimes we’re playing a little more defensive. It depends on the team or the situation or the area of the ice where the faceoff is,” Laich said. “Wingers can help out, but there’s a lot of onus on the centermen to win those battles and spit those pucks out.”