If you happen to see Jason Spezza chatting with a linesmen during a play stoppage, he’s probably not asking him about the wife and kids.
He’s more likely reporting a cheating violation in the faceoff circle, one of the mostly hotly contested patches of ice. In truth, the battle often extends just beyond the painted dots to where the wingers battle for possession, and when it comes to “cheating” Spezza himself is a master at it. Hey, if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.
“Everybody that’s good cheats,” Spezza says, laughing. “Look at the top of the (faceoff) list, those are the ten best cheaters in the league.”
And yes, that would be Spezza sitting 9th in the NHL with an overall winning percentage of 56.4 before Wednesday’s games, all the more impressive considering Spezza was leading the league in draws taken with 342 before the game against the New York Rangers. Faceoffs are a grind. To be among the leaders in number of draws and percentage won is a tribute.
So, hats off to Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, a 61.9 per cent winner off 307 faceoff draws.
Maybe it’s my seat in the press box, right at centre ice, with a birds eye view of the opening draw, but I’ve always been fascinated by faceoffs and the subtle art of winning them. I love to see which centre will get away with that slightly illegal body rotation, sometimes as much as a 45 degree angle to bolster a swipe of the puck, without getting caught.
Faceoffs are big. Faceoffs mean possession, which helps teams win and keeps coaches happy. Good faceoff men are treasured, envied, they’re out there with the game on the line in the final minute.
Spezza is one of those key men in the circle now, but it wasn’t always so. In his first two seasons, he couldn’t crack 50 per cent (45.8 and 47.7), but since the lockout, he has consistently been at 50 per cent or higher, topping out at 56.3 per cent last season.
While Spezza has worked on his craft, part of the increase can be chalked up to a player paying his dues. Veterans get a little more rope in the circle, are allowed to push the envelope on what’s allowed, though not as much as they used to.
“It’s changed a little bit from when I first came in,” Spezza says. “Some of those old linesmen, they didn’t give you much of a chance. With a lot of the younger linesmen coming in, it’s a little more of a fair fight.”
Still, it helps to have street cred as a veteran player, and Spezza tries to enhance it by cultivating a healthy rapport with game officials.
“A lot of it is a respect thing,” he says. “You have to respect the linesman, recognize that occasionally he’s going to drop the puck wrong, and maybe the guy’s going to get away with cheating — but if you snap on the guy right away, after a guy cheats on you once, you’re not going to get much respect from the linesman.”
Spezza will quietly talk to a linesman if he thinks an opposing centre is gaining an unfair advantage, and advise the official what to look for in terms of a stick or body alignment trick. Centres are supposed to line up straight, with the visiting centre putting his stick down first. If you wonder why linesmen sometimes take so long to drop the puck, it’s because they’re giving centres time to line up properly before they kick them out of the circle.
Road games pose a special challenge for faceoff men.
“Like when we were in New York (Oct. 29), and (Brad) Richards was killing me,” Spezza says. “You just have to compose yourself and then I battled back and ended up being 50 per cent. Some nights it’s just a battle.”
Different story Wednesday, with Spezza winning 79 per cent of his draws (15 for 19) to Richards 44 per cent (7 for 16). As a team, the Senators won 59 per cen of their faceoffs. Home ice advantage at work.
Too bad about those 21 turnovers by Ottawa.
Now, the Senators take their act on the road, where wins and faceoffs victories are harder to come by.
What’s the worst road rink for getting credit for a faceoff win?
The Motor City, according to Spezza.
“You go into Detroit, it’s impossible to be over 50 per cent,” he says. “I don’t know what those stats guys are doing but they’re definitely giving the benefit of the doubt to (Red Wings centres) on the 50-50s (tossup draws).”
Centres, of course, get all the credit and blame for faceoff wins and losses but their sidekicks often make the difference in gaining puck control. Spezza is constantly reminding, coaxing, Milan Michalek and Colin Greening to help out on draws.
“A lot of times you tie up and it’s the winger who wins the faceoff. Both my guys are real good,” Spezza says. “But don’t tell them that.”
Asked to respond to Zenon Konopka’s comment that the Senators would be fired up to face New York after the Wotjek Wolski hit on captain Daniel Alfredsson, Rangers head coach John Tortorella replied:
“I don’t give a crap what Zee-non said, or whatever his name is, said. We’re going to go about our business here.”
Konopka fought Sean Avery in the first period.
Contact Wayne Scanlan at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter @HockeyScanner.