The biggest draw in the National Hockey League is drawing dead.
But don’t blame the linesman, Toronto Maple Leafs fans. Don’t waste your breath crying “cheater”; cheating is integral to the craft. Instead, credit the Boston Bruins, who collectively have the quickest draw in the East (and the West, for that matter).
“They’re the best team in the league at them,” Leafs centre Tyler Bozak said after Game 3′s dismal 12-for-29 performance in the face-off circle. “They’ve got the best guy in the league, (Patrice) Bergeron, on their team. It’s going to be hard to beat guys like that. I thought maybe they were cheating a little bit, so I tried to cheat. Your timing can be off by half a second and you’re going to have an off night. You’re not going to get away with mistakes in the circle and off timing against the guys that they have.”
Of the guys they have — centremen Bergeron, David Krejci, Chris Kelly, Gregory Campbell and Rich Peverley — only one has been worse than 58.3 per cent from the dot in this opening-round series. (Krejci’s 44.4 per cent success rate is forgiven based on the fact he leads the NHL playoffs in points, with seven.) As a collective, the Bruins have improved on their league-leading 56.4 per cent face-off success rate in the regular season; going into Game 4 they lead the 16 playoff clubs with a 58 per cent winning percentage — which leaves Toronto dead last in a telling category.
Of the eight first-round series being waged, only Montreal and Minnesota are winning more draws but fewer games.
“The centremen take a lot of pride in taking face-offs, and obviously Bergy is a Selke winner last year, and that’s a big part of his game,” Bruins winger Milan Lucic said after Game 3′s 5-2 victory. “Especially in the third period, there were a lot of face-offs in our own zone. It’s something the centremen practice a lot in the pregame skate, every day before the game. It’s not just the centremen; it can be the wingers helping out, jumping on loose pucks.”
But it’s not just wingers helping centres; it’s centres helping centres.
Rich Peverley, who has won a ridiculous 20 of the 23 draws (87 per cent) he’s taken in his two games played this series, explained that the Bruins circle Hercs frequently chat amongst themselves about their opponents’ tendencies. If one guy finds himself on a losing streak, he’ll ask the others for analysis.
“Bergy and Kells and Soupy (Campbell) and I, we all talk and share information on guys. I think that helps a lot. Having that communication about other guys is something you can use as a strength,” Peverley said. And if you feel strong crouching down, you’re more likely to have the mental advantage. “If you’re feeling confident, you’re not second-guessing yourself about what you’re going to do.”
There is certainly some second-guessing when it comes to Bozak. The Leafs best centre in the circle through the regular season (52.6 per cent), Bozak’s blade has failed him so far in the playoffs. Winning just 43.2 per cent of his attempts, Bozak’s success rate has dropped to third-best among Leafs centres.
When news first broke that the first-liner would be returning for Game 1 from an upper-body injury that kept him out of the Leafs last two regular-season games, it was reported that he might not be ready to take draws. Kind of an important part of his role.
And although Bozak insists he feels fine health wise, one could not be faulted for thinking he’s not 100 per cent. It’s the playoffs, after all. Reveal nothing. (And just last year, centre Claude Giroux rushed to get off-season wrist surgery after getting banged up at the circle.)
“They’re going to win the majority of their draws, they’re pretty good at cheating and pretty strong and have good timing,” said Bozack, who studies tape of the Bruins centreman to pick up their tricks. “I cheat too. We all cheat. They were just cheating a little better than we were last night.
“We’ve just got to bear down and win as many as we can.”
If Bozak isn’t second-guessing himself at the dot, then Game 3′s linemen surely were.
On Monday, his ineffectiveness took centre stage; he was repeatedly tossed out of the circle for not getting his stick down fast enough and trying to manipulate the timing of the puck drop.
Coach Randy Carlyle addressed the official during the second intermission.
“I had a discussion with the linesman because, from our guys’ perspective, there were some things going on out there in the face-off that they deemed wasn’t… I hate to say fair, because if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying,” Carlyle said. “We were not taking up the position that we would normally get being the home team. Usually the explanation is visitor down, home team down, puck down. Our guys felt that there was some things going on with it in the faceoff circle, and thus we were getting removed from it unfairly.”
Peverley shrugs off the cheating chatter, but shares Carlyle’s anything-goes philosophy.
“I’m just trying to anticipate what he’s going to do, and I guess the ref didn’t like what he was doing,” Peverley said. “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying on the face-offs, really. You gotta try different things. Anybody in the league is doing that.”
But nobody is doing it better than the Bruins.
Watch: Hockey Central @ Noon discusses the Leafs’ face-off woes versus the Bruins in Game 3