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Bruins winning battles in faceoff circle

Critical part of NHL postseason success

At 1:08 of the first overtime in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Patrice Bergeron lined up at the left dot in the offensive zone at the United Center. On the other side was Chicago’s Michal Handzus, his enemy on 13 previous faceoffs.

Bergeron used an overhand grip with his right hand. He flared out his skates to get low and strengthen his base. He leaned in and won his ninth draw of the night against Handzus. On his backhand, Bergeron pulled the puck to Andrew Ference at the left point, just inside the blue line.

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Because Bergeron won the faceoff cleanly, the Bruins launched one of their go-to plays. Ference had multiple options.

No. 1: Dish to Johnny Boychuk on his right. No. 2: Shoot. No. 3: Push the puck down the left-side wall for one of the forwards to retrieve.

Ference’s first read was open. He slid the puck to Boychuk. At the same time, Bergeron charged toward the net. Because Bergeron’s win and Ference’s pass happened rapidly, the Blackhawks couldn’t rotate in time to stuff Boychuk’s shooting lane.

Boychuk might have hammered the puck past Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford for the overtime winner. Bergeron might have fought for position to tip Boychuk’s shot past Crawford.

“It’s a good play,” Ference said. “If the draw’s won really clean, it opens up a lot of good plays. It worked out really well in overtime. The bump to [Boychuk] was obviously the best option. It’s one of those ones that you hope for the win.”

In a coach’s mind, faceoff plays unfold perfectly. On the ice, it’s not always so.

The Blackhawks clogged the slot. They walled off Bergeron. Crawford spotted Boychuk’s windup, and at 1:18, he snatched Boychuk’s slap shot. Two overtimes later, Chicago’s Andrew Shaw deflected the winning goal past Tuukka Rask.

Opportunities arise

Hockey is not scripted like football. Most of the game is free-flowing, creative, and intuitive.

But faceoffs allow coaches to dust off their playbooks. After a win, players skate predetermined routes. A win leads to a chance. A chance can result in a goal.

The faceoff is the distillation of conflict, hockey’s primary and primal characteristic. Two centers brawl over a 50-50 puck the way two Dobermans would fight for a ribeye. Their teammates shove, punch, and slash opponents in pursuit of the puck following the draw. Cowards do not succeed.

Every faceoff starts the same way. The centers position themselves approximately one stick length apart. The visiting center drops his blade first. His home counterpart follows. The linesman releases the puck. The winning center glues his stick onto the puck and scrapes it toward a teammate.

It sounds like an easy maneuver. It is not. Factors that play into a faceoff include the draw’s positioning, which of the NHL’s 35 linesmen is dropping the puck, time of game, previous performance against an opponent, how the other center is holding his stick.

Recently retired center Scott Nichol had a career-high 19 points with San Jose in 2009-10. Points didn’t come easily for him — but faceoff wins did.

In 2007-08, Nichol, then with Nashville, won 59.8 percent of his faceoffs to lead the NHL. Two seasons later, he turned the trick again, leading the league with 60.6 percent, this time for San Jose.

Nichol preferred a stiff flex on his stick for better strength on faceoffs. His blade was taller than those on other players’ sticks. The 5-foot-9-inch, 180-pounder liked to get low and crowd the circle. When a bigger center leaned in, he couldn’t see over Nichol’s head and shoulders.

“I don’t think the average Joe Fan understands how important faceoffs are,” Nichol said. “When you start with the puck, you don’t have to chase for 30 seconds.

“When you go into the circle, you take all these things into account. What side? Right or left? Do you draw back to the net or into the corner? Who are you going against? What time of game? Do I want to sell the farm and try for a huge win? Or tie it up and get a 50-50 puck?

“So many things go through your mind.”

The Bergeron method

Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Getzlaf, John Tavares, and Henrik Sedin are five of the NHL’s best centers. This season, all five lost more draws than they won.

In comparison, Bergeron, David Krejci, Chris Kelly, and Rich Peverley — four of the Bruins’ five primary faceoff men — won more than 50 percent. Overall, the Bruins won 56.4 percent of their regular-season faceoffs, the NHL’s best mark. In the playoffs, they have a 56.1 winning percentage, also tops.

Bergeron is the group’s ace. He won an NHL-best 62.1 percent of his regular-season draws. Last season, Bergeron won 59.3 percent, second-best to Chicago’s Jonathan Toews (59.4 percent).

Like most effective draw men, Bergeron likes to dip low and forward. He is strong and balanced on his skates, and when he lowers his center of gravity, he becomes even stronger.

Bergeron’s go-to maneuver is picking the faceoff cleanly by timing the drop, fishing forward with his stick, and pulling the puck toward a teammate on his backhand. Bergeron also likes to chop at his opponent’s shaft to win the draw.

Bergeron occasionally goes to his forehand, and when he does, he violently twists his body to the left. The torque throws all of Bergeron’s weight behind the push.

In the Bruins’ 2-0 win in Game 3 of the Final, Bergeron held a faceoff workshop, winning 24 of 28 draws, including all eight he took against Handzus.

“He’s a top guy for at least the last five years or more,” Handzus said. “He’s very strong. He’s got great timing. He changes it up sometimes, so you’re sometimes guessing. You’ve got to be ready and try to maybe tie it and get your wings to help.”

The other Boston centers are not slouches. Peverley won 58.4 percent of his regular-season draws, Kelly won 57.9 percent, and Krejci 55.2 percent.

“I think timing is one of those things that’s tough to get right away,” said Kelly. “Different linesmen have different timing. I think timing is the most important. Technique, you can work on. But knowing the timing part is really helpful.”

The center is not solely responsible for the win. Because it’s hard to pick a faceoff cleanly, the center needs his wings to help win a loose puck.

When Jay Pandolfo played in New Jersey, John Madden was his center. In their last six seasons together, Madden won more than he lost in five. Madden got so good that he’d know which side of the ice the puck would land on. With a nod or eye contact, Madden instructed Pandolfo where to go. Most of the time, Madden was right.

“He’d let myself or whoever was on the other wing know so we’d be aware of that,” Pandolfo recalled. “We could jump in and help out. He’d give me a look or whatever.

“Especially when you’re in a series, you’re going up against the same guys. You know their tendencies. You kind of know which way the puck might bounce out if it’s going to be a tie. That was an important thing.”

It was crucial for Madden and Pandolfo to win faceoffs. They were checkers playing against the opponents’ best forwards. Every time Madden won a draw, it was one fewer chance for a top line to start a shift with the puck.

When you claim the puck first, the playbook opens.

Setting it all up

The play is simple in theory and potentially devastating in results. When the Bruins’ first line is on for a left-dot offensive-zone draw, Milan Lucic sets up at the top of the circle. The idea is for Krejci to pull the puck back to Lucic, and for Lucic to snap the puck past the goalie.

Many teams use something similar. The Penguins tried it repeatedly, with Malkin pulling the puck back to James Neal.

But the play rarely works. In the second-to-last regular-season game, Krejci and Lucic executed it against Washington. Still, it required a carom off Karl Alzner’s skate for Lucic’s shot to beat Capitals goalie Braden Holtby.

For the play to work, Krejci must win the draw cleanly. Once the puck goes to Lucic, he must shoot before the opposing wingers fill the lane.

“That works well if you can get the shot off quickly,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “But it’s got to be a clean draw. A clean draw and a quick release. Because if you don’t have a clean draw or a quick release, there’s somebody in that shooting lane right away.”

Pittsburgh scored only two goals in the Eastern Conference finals, but one came after a faceoff win. In Game 3, Sidney Crosby took a draw at the right dot. Crosby went to his forehand, and when he pushed the puck to Pascal Dupuis on his right, the play went into motion.

Paul Martin slid down the right-side wall. Dupuis gave the puck to Martin. The defenseman wheeled behind the net and looked for options. Because the Bruins were scrambling, they didn’t mark Chris Kunitz.

Boychuk was facing Martin, and by the time Boychuk turned around, Martin had already given the puck to Kunitz, who snapped the puck past Rask.

“Probably was a set play,” Boychuk said. “I think he was trying to throw it in front of the net just to create something. It just so happened that he was there, back side.”

The Bruins are as cautious about opposing faceoff plays as they are eager to create their own. In the defensive zone, Julien regularly deploys two centers. When the first line takes a D-zone draw, Bergeron replaces Nathan Horton. When the second line is on the ice, Kelly fills in for Jaromir Jagr. If the first center is tossed for cheating, the Bruins have a second pivot ready.

When the Bruins are called for icing after a long shift, they are told to cheat. One of the wings will line up for the draw, break a rule — jostle his opponent, glide into the circle, put his stick down early — and get tossed. The center returns to the faceoff. Those additional seconds give the center time to rest.

The Bruins take extra measures to win faceoffs. And it matters. In Game 3 against the Blackhawks, 56 pucks dropped. The Bruins swiped 40 of them. Chicago learned the hard way that it’s impossible to score when you don’t have the puck.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.
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