Skill, strategy, effort at play on faceoffs, where Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey team’s stats aren’t pretty

January 18, 2019
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Badgers center Tarek Baker says that when he's struggling on faceoffs, he needs his wingers to help out.

It seems simple. Two players meet on opposite sides of a dot in the middle of a circle, and they tangle once the puck is dropped to the ice until one team emerges with possession.

Then you add in the subtle details that make taking faceoffs an intricate combination of skill, strategy, effort and, sometimes, a little bit of cheating.

It’s not simple.

Those two players at the faceoff dot are trying to read each other for clues on how the opponent will be playing this one. How low is he holding his stick? How far forward is his head positioned?

Each player has his own footwork, weight balance, leverage and hand-eye coordination to think about, too. Not to mention summoning the hunger to have his team get control of the disc.

“It’s a 50-50 puck that you need to win,” said Seamus Malone, a senior center who has taken more faceoffs for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team than anyone else. “It does take some skill. There’s some strategy to it. But you’ve just got to be ready for that puck drop and be able to battle the guy next to you and be able to beat them.”

With the Badgers this season, however, the numbers tell a story of falling short.

Entering tonight’s opener of a Big Ten Conference series against No. 12 Notre Dame at the Kohl Center, UW is last in the country in faceoffs, winning just 41 percent.

Their success rate is just fractions of a point ahead of the worst season-long percentage posted by a Division I men’s team in the previous six seasons, Princeton in 2015-16.

Those who take faceoffs most often for the Badgers are aware that their statistics aren’t good, but they also understand that it’s only a snapshot of a play whose result can be reversed with follow-up effort.

“Game after game, our faceoffs haven’t been great this year,” sophomore center Tarek Baker said. “But there’s only so much you can control as yourself.”

Baker, who’s last among the Badgers’ four main faceoff-takers at 35 percent, pointed out that the draw often becomes a three-person battle on each side, with the wingers responsible for extracting the puck when it gets tied up by the centers.

“We’ve got to take a little more pride in that, I think, from the whole forward point of view,” Baker said.

Malone has won 43 percent of his faceoffs. Freshman Dominick Mersch has won 38 percent, and fourth-line center Mick Messner, also a freshman, is at 52 percent.

Season-long struggle

There’s some subjectivity in assigning a winner to faceoffs, especially if the drop of the puck turns into a mass of bodies. Within a game, stats might differ depending on who’s counting but over the course of a season those discrepancies tend to even out.

Faceoffs determine who controls the puck — at least for a few seconds — but UW isn’t doing poorly in possession metrics. The Badgers have more shot attempts than their opponents for the season, both overall and at even strength.

As a team, UW hasn’t won the faceoff category in a game since Feb. 10, 2018, against Minnesota. The Badgers lost that game 7-1, highlighting the danger in connecting faceoff success to chances of winning.

Still, Badgers centers view faceoffs as a key starting point.

“It’s such a pivotal point in the game,” Malone said. “Possession of the puck off the faceoff is huge. It’s a complex thing but it’s definitely important.”

A dive into the stats shows that UW is especially struggling on faceoffs while on the penalty kill, winning just 32 percent of them.

Mersch, a freshman, said he and his teammates have studied videos and worked with coaches on being stronger with their sticks during the few seconds of locking up with an opposing center.

Volunteer assistant coach Brad Winchester has offered suggestions on using a wider stance and getting the upper body more over the faceoff dot to procure an advantage.

“I think the most frustrating thing was at the beginning of the year, we were losing them really clean,” Mersch said. “I think that’s what we’ve gotten a lot better at. Maybe the overall winning percentage of the faceoffs isn’t as high, but slowing it down and giving your wingers a chance to get up to the opposing (defenseman) or get in and knock a puck loose, that’s gotten better. And that goes a long way.”

From taking thousands of faceoffs in his career, Baker said he has gained one key bit of knowledge: When you’re in a slump, look to the wingers for help.

“I think that’s the biggest thing for our team going forward,” he said. “We need to create more of that 50-50 off the draw and tie up our guys and hopefully our wingers can come in and help out and get pucks back to our (defensemen).”

Badgers coach Tony Granato said that while centers have the faceoff stats attached to their name, help from the two other forwards on the ice can make a big difference in the win-loss record.

“If he’s 5-8 (in faceoffs), he could be above .500 if you’ve got good help from the wingers,” Granato said. “That is something that we need to be strong at.”

Chance to cheat

Baker and right wing Sean Dhooghe have some leeway to trade spots for faceoffs depending on the matchup or the side of the ice they’re on. Dhooghe is a right-handed shooter while Baker is a lefty.

“And it gives me a better chance to cheat off the draw a bit,” Baker said, referencing a quicker-than-allowed move of the stick or a turn of the skates to get better position, efforts that don’t always get caught. “Because if I get kicked out, I know I’ve got another guy that can take draws and is pretty good at them.”

If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying?

Baker smiled: “There’s a lot of truth to that.”

Like free throws in basketball, faceoffs in hockey can be a source of mental anguish when a player is on a cold streak.

Badgers centers have been there a few times this season.

“If the guy in front of you has beaten you clean every time, it’s maybe time to switch something up,” Malone said. “But if you’re just not in it and you have to re-adjust, reset and think about it and get back into it, then maybe that’s it. Maybe take a breather and focus up and then go to the next draw ready to go.”

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