- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Washington Capitals feature a fearsome offensive attack led by some of the most gifted players in the world, but as the New York Islanders proved Saturday night, the Caps’ big offensive weapons are a little less frightening when they don’t have the puck.

Despite a vast disadvantage in overall talent, the Islanders were able to stifle the Caps for the first two periods by winning faceoffs and not allowing them to dictate the game’s flow.

“If you don’t start with the puck in today’s game, it is too difficult to play,” Caps assistant Dean Evason said. “You can’t get the puck back, because you can’t check like you used to check in the old days. If you don’t start with possession of the puck it is a very difficult task.”

The final numbers were brutal - Washington lost 46 of 66 draws, including 15 of 16 in the defensive zone and 21 of 29 in the offensive end. It was a group effort; none of the four centers won more than 40 percent, and even David Steckel, usually a wizard in the circle, won just 27 percent of his faceoffs.

Typically the home team earns the benefit of the doubt on draws that are too close to call, so some home cooking might have inflated those numbers. Steckel also wasn’t happy with how the faceoffs were being officiated.

“They had a significant advantage that we hadn’t seen in any game this year,” Steckel said. “You’re on the road, and yeah, you’ve got to put your stick down first, but I can say I’ve been on the home team this year and never seen an advantage that the Islanders had.”

Sometimes the problem isn’t the center. He earns the credit/criticism when draws are won or lost, but it can be more of a team statistic than people might realize.

“It is on everybody. Centers are the ones in focus because they’re the ones who get the stats at the end of the night, but it is really up to the wingers to help out,” right wing Mike Knuble said. “It is a three-man job and sometimes even four if you get a big scrum. It is a little thing we can fix just by working harder.

“We probably got a little outworked in that game, and it ran all over the ice from one-on-one battles to faceoffs. It is probably why we had trouble getting things going because we weren’t winning key draws.”

At the team level, this was likely a one-game aberration. Steckel remains one of the top faceoff guys in the league (seventh among those who qualify at 60.6 percent), and the Caps definitely miss Boyd Gordon, who has been out for four games with a back injury.

Gordon is also a faceoff specialist and the team’s only right-handed centerman.

Still, the Caps are going to need improvement from Nicklas Backstrom moving forward. Steckel and Gordon make a great 1-2 punch, but for the team’s big guns to operate at maximum efficiency it starts with Backstrom in the circle.

After a 7-for-25 night against the Islanders, Backstrom’s 40.8 percent is the sixth worst in the NHL among the 92 players who qualify, and it is the worst percentage among the “top” 30 in faceoffs lost.

“Maybe I have to get a little a bit stronger on faceoffs - like be more focused - and don’t always go for the puck every time,” Backstrom said. “I need to try to lock sticks sometimes. The only thing you can do is try to get better, like maybe ask the other guys on the team some questions.”

Backstrom’s struggles also can hurt the power play. He is only 6-for-13 on extra-man draws this year, mostly because Boudreau usually asks Brooks Laich to take the faceoff in place of his No. 1 center. As a team the Caps are just 47-for-95 on power-play faceoffs, and a loss in that situation almost always results in the puck ending up at the other end of the ice.

Evason is in charge of working with the centers on faceoffs, and Backstrom is his biggest project.

“Actually a couple of games ago we broke down all of his faceoffs and brought it into him,” Evason said. “Nick has tremendous skill and hand-eye coordination and you see it in his passing, so a lot of times he’ll get in the circle and just rely on his skill level instead of getting down strong and really physically getting involved.

“We’re trying to get him to use more of his hips, his [butt] and his core to get involved. I relate to a golf swing. If you just swing with your arms, you’re not going to hit it very far. It is the same with faceoffs - if you just swing with your arms, you aren’t very strong, but if you get your whole core moving, you have a much better chance of winning the draw.”

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