- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2015

NEW YORK — Having recently been made aware that he won 67.5 percent of his faceoffs during the opening round of the playoffs, better than any other player who was routinely entrusted by his team with that responsibility, Jay Beagle let out a sigh.

“Oh, you guys jinxed me now, so I’ll blame you two,” Beagle said to reporters, seemingly only half-kidding.

Beagle, the Washington Capitals’ third-line center, went 56-for-83 from the dot against the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs, routinely holding his own against his opponent. In a Game 6 loss to the Islanders, he went 15-for-19, winning 11 of his first 12 faceoffs; of his 83 postseason opportunities, 71 occurred in the neutral or defensive zones.

The success Beagle attained was a large reason why, at 56 percent, the Capitals won the most faceoffs of any of the 16 teams in the first-round of the playoffs. Their opponent in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the New York Rangers, were 15th at 45.6 percent.

“I think faceoffs, for me, personally — regular season, preseason, playoffs — faceoffs [is] one of those things that always gets overlooked a little bit, how important starting with the puck is,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “We’ve put a big emphasis on [it].”

Washington won just 51.2 percent of its faceoffs during the regular season, with top-line center Nicklas Backstrom leading the team at 53.6 percent — 18th in the league among qualified leaders.

Beagle was at 56.5 percent during the regular season, but he took just 384 faceoffs, owing to a pair of injuries that kept him out of the lineup in October and in April and his fluctuating role as an occasional winger.

His productivity against the New York Islanders, though, was remarkable. Only three players in the past 10 years finished had a faceoff percentage higher than Beagle’s during the course of the entire postseason; Ottawa Senators center Zenon Konipka won 53 of his 75 draws, or 70.7 percent, in a first-round playoff loss in 2012.

“A lot of faceoffs is luck,” Beagle said. “You rely on your wingers and your D-men to win quite a few draws for you. You know, the other thing is too, it’s just a little bit of preparation. The coaches — [Blaine Forsythe and Brett Leonhardt] — they do a good job at breaking down each player and their tendencies on draws in certain situations.”

Beagle said he approaches most of his faceoffs in the same way, but acknowledged that when he starts in the defensive zone, there’s a greater urgency to recover the puck for his team and move it past the blue line.

He doesn’t have one set strategy; depending on the location of the draw, he’ll try to get it to specific players, but acknowledged that he’s not refined enough to do much more than get the puck to a general area.

Being at home can change a player’s approach — the visiting team’s player must put his stick down first, which can tip off an opponent to the strategy because of the stance that player takes — and the opponent’s tendencies, as well as the referee’s method of dropping the puck, all lead to different conditions.

Against the Islanders, Beagle weathered them all. He held the advantage against each of the seven players he faced, including going 10-for-12 against top-line center John Tavares and 12-for-14 against second-line center Franz Nielsen. He was 7-for-12 in the attacking zone, 25-for-32 in the defensive zone and 24-for-39 in the neutral zone.

And, the next round could be advantageous to Beagle as well. Their top-line center, Derick Brassard, won just 48.8 percent of his faceoffs during the regular season and was at 49.6 percent during the five-game first-round triumph over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Second-line center Derek Stepan won only 44.1 percent of his draws during the regular season; only Dominic Moore, their fourth-line center entering the series, had success on the dot, winning 54.5 percent of his faceoffs during the season.

“It’s huge in playoffs to try to start with the puck — get that puck possession right off the start,” Beagle said. “Everything’s amped up in the playoffs, but you know, draws become that much more important. I’m just trying to win every one that I can.”

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