Through the first two games of the Washington Capitals’ opening series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a troubling trend began to unfold.
The Capitals had won just 72 of the first 171 face-offs, good for an abysmal 42 percent success rate across the team.
To put in perspective of just how low that total is, the Edmonton Oilers finished the regular season with the lowest success rate, and they still managed to win 47 percent of their draws. It’s silly to compare a two-game span to a full 82-game season, but it still shows you how unusually low the Capitals’ success rate was through the first two games.
But what’s particularly strange is that the Capitals are relatively strong at the dot. According to Puck Base, Washington won 49.8 percent of their face-offs, good for 16th in the NHL. During the regular season, Nicklas Backstrom won 51.4 percent of his 1,333 face-offs, yet in the first two games of the series, he won just 22 of his 45 face-offs, good for a 48.9 percent success rate. And Jay Beagle, who won 56.7 percent of his total face-offs during the regular season, the 8th-best percentage in the NHL, had won just 19 of his 41 draws, an uncharacteristically low 46.3 percent.
In part it is because of the talent the Maple Leafs possess at the circle. Toronto’s primary centers, Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak and Brian Boyle, posted face-off percentages of 46.8 percent, 48.0 percent, 56.7 percent and 52.2 percent, respectably, during the regular season. In total, Toronto finished just a touch above the Capitals in the category, with a team success rate of 49.9 percent.
But in Games 3 and 4, the Capitals have been able to flip the script. In that two-game stretch, Washington has won 62 of the 119 total face-offs, good for a 52.1 percent success rate.
The Capitals do occasionally practice face-offs during their morning skates. But this turnaround isn’t simply explained by working on a quick reaction time. Face-offs aren’t perfected like a jump shot in basketball, improving through repetition. It’s about developing a read, like poker.
“It’s more figuring out and adjusting to your opponent than practicing face-offs,” Lars Eller said. “I think they adjusted to us to start the series, and now some of us have to adjust to them. It’s little details you have to do different. You constantly have to adapt.”
“It’s not something that we just focused on and said, ‘oh, we need to be better,’ I mean, we knew we needed to be better,” Beagle said. “During the game you know you need to be better. So it’s just one of those things that you just have to continue to work on, and obviously there’s different tendencies with different guys, and they have good face-off guys too. They’re trying to win it too, so it’s something that you really just have to try to focus on.”
Beagle also said that he tends to focus on his own tendencies as well when he’s looking to improve on the draw. He said that if things aren’t going your way at the face-off circle, it’s possible to get out of your own developed comfort zone and get out of sync. But Beagle has begun to get back into his rhythm, winning 10 out of his 20 face-offs in the last two games.
Barry Trotz sees this newfound tenaciousness in his team at the circle. Trotz noted that winning a face-off doesn’t entirely get pinned on the center that happens to be on the ice. It is instead a five-man effort on each draw. And Trotz believes his team is now taking a bit more pride and making more of an effort to win each face-off.
“I think our mindset has been better, I think you start figuring out the opposition on a man-on-man basis in the face-off circle,” Trotz said. “As much as it is technique, it’s [about] who wants it more. It’s a combination of will and skill, and I think we’ve made an emphasis more on it.”
Now in certain situations, winning a face-off is essentially arbitrary, especially in the neutral zone. If a team loses a draw in the neutral zone, there’s not an immediate threat towards their own goal, and, chances are, possession of the puck may change hands before the puck reaches the opposing team’s defensive zone.
But there is an immediate threat in both the offensive and defensive zone, and Eller himself said that this is where face-offs truly begin to matter. That’s where it is important to first possess the puck. If the puck is in a team’s offensive zone for a draw, it gives that team an opportunity for an immediate possession within shooting distance of the net. And if the puck is in the a team’s defensive zone, the team obviously wants to win the draw so the opposing team doesn’t get that very opportunity.
That’s no more evident than the Maple Leafs’ game winning goal in Game 2. As J.P. noted, Kasperi Kapanen’s game-winning double overtime goal came 20 seconds after Kapanen won a draw against Evgeny Kuznetsov. During that 20-second span, a draw that took place in the Capitals’ defensive zone, the puck never changed hands.
As you could probably tell from the low percentage in the first two games, the Capitals struggled in those two critical zones. In Games 1 and 2, Washington won just 28 out of 70 face-offs in their offensive zone, good for 40 percent. In their defensive zone, they won just 21 out of 47, good for 44.7 percent.
Initially, in Game 3, the Capitals continued to struggle at winning draws in their offensive zone, winning just six of 17 face-offs, a 35.3 percent success rate. But that figure improved dramatically in Game 4, where the Capitals won 12 of their 17 offensive draws, good for a 70.6 percent success rate. However, they have still struggled at winning in their own defensive zone, winning just 17 of their 40 face-offs (42.5 percent) in Games 3 and 4.
Those numbers in the critical zones aren’t particularly high, and that suggests that the Capitals’ overall improvement over the last two games has come within the neutral zone. Just so we don’t get lazy with it, the Capitals have won 27 of their 45 draws in the neutral zone (60 percent).
The Capitals may have done a much better job at working against the Maple Leafs’ face-off men, but the figures have been a bit ballooned due to success in the least-meaningful zone. Now, the Capitals have to work on winning those puck battles in the zones that matters. After all, it is an important aspect of the game.
“It does have an effect on the game, there’s no question,” Trotz said. “You want to start with the puck.”