Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Anatomy of a Play: Why Faceoffs are so Important

On this installment of Anatomy of a Play, we look at Steve Sullivan's hat trick as a perfect example of why faceoff wins are so important in hockey.  We dig deeper into this peculiar mix of finesse and fury, complete with video, photos, and cheesy telestration, after the break.

First, a Quick Primer of Faceoffs

Faceoffs are how each stoppage of play gets resumed in hockey.  Winning faceoffs establishes possession of hte puck for your team.  The more faceoffs you win, the more often you have the puck, and the more likely you are to score (or less likely you are to get scored on).  Think of starting field position in football.  Kickers who routinely kick touchbacks, and punters who can pin an opponent inside the 20, are the unsung heroes of many a game.  Any real titan fan has to admit how important Craig Hentrich has been to so many Titan Wins.

The same true for centers in hockey.  A premium is placed on centers who win faceoffs (a.k.a. "draws") consistently.  For example, former predator Scott Nichol, now of the San Jose Sharks, is currently third in the league, winning 62% of his faceoffs.  Predator Captain Jason Arnott (#19) currently wins exactly 50%.  Fortunately, he won this draw that led to the Sullivan Goal.

Sullivan's Third Goal

Breaking Down the Faceoff

1.  Arnott wins the faceoff cleanly, passing the puck to Steve Sullivan (#29).  Steve Sullivan immediately passes the puck back to defenseman Dan Hamhuis (#2).  The pass from Sully to Hamhuis is so fast that I actually missed it on the reply twice.  Judging by the speed of the pass, and the angle/grip of Arnott's, Sully, and Hamhuis' sticks, it my fair guess that this play is a designed play.

2. The Columbus center, Antione Vermette's, (#50) first instinct is to chase the puck to Steve Sullivan.  However, because Sullivan got the puck to Hamhuis so quickly,  Vermette is pulled slightly out of position.

3. Hamhuis draws the blue jacket toward him, and then passes the puck to defenseman Francis Boullion (#51).  Notice that Boullion is pretty far away from the faceoff circle, is close to the blue line, and far away from any Columbus players.  This is because he was backing up since the faceoff win, in expectation of a pass.  (I say this because, if Boullion were in a more defensive mode, he'd likely be closer to center ice to prevent a push up ice by the Blue Jackets)

4. Notice how much room Boullion has to work with.  This amount of open ice is because simultaneous penalties have resulted in a 4-on-4 situation.  This is an offensive dream come true.  Boullion could walk forward and take a quick wrist shot, if he wanted to.  That would be a bad option here, though, because the Blue Jacket goalie has shifted from top-to-bottom of the screen following the pass to Boullion.

5.  The Columbus center Vermette is now pretty far out of position, due to the quick passes by Arnott, then Sullivan, then Hamhuis.  As Vermette has always had defensive responsibility for this side of the ice,  he is now in a mad-dash to get back into position and to cover Boullion.

6. Boullion is patient with the puck.  He waits until Vermette is on top of him before returning the pass on Sullivan.

7.  The Blue Jacket winger is actually NOT responsible for Sullivan in this situation, but is covering Hamhuis, who is behind Sullivan and off-screen to the left.  However, noticing the defensive breakdown, he is scrambling to cover Sullivan.

8.  Notice how after winning the faceoff, Arnott makes a drive toward the net.  Arnott is a big, strong center who can take up alot of valuable space in front of the net.  This is good because not only is he completely occupying one defender, but the other defender is clearly out of position and seems lost in the shuffle.  Did I mention that Sullivan has his stick practically over his head, waiting for a big, fat, juicy slapshot?

9.  From the behind the goal angle, we can see the result of Boullion's patience on the return pass: a wide open shootling lane.  The Blue Jackets are out of position as a result of chasing the quick Nashville passes.  The goalie is trying to get set up in front of the shot, but to no avail.  Sullivan knocks home an easy slap shot for the hat trick.

Five Seconds?

There you have it, the face off win sets up four passes and a slapshot goal... all in five seconds.  Obviosly crisp passing and knowing where your other teammates are on the ice is important.  But this goal, which really put the Blue Jackets away, would have never happened without that all important face-off win.

I hope that helps explain the importance of the face-off.  As always, this blog is still very much a work in progress.  Please send any questions or feedback to preds101@comcast.net.

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