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Lightning seeks to resolve faceoff failings

Faceoffs have been a long-term problem for the Lightning, which has ranked in the bottom half of the league the past two seasons. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Faceoffs have been a long-term problem for the Lightning, which has ranked in the bottom half of the league the past two seasons. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Oct. 15, 2015

TAMPA — Early in Monday's game in Boston, Lightning center Brian Boyle lost a defensive zone faceoff to Patrice Bergeron, jump-starting a Bruins power play.

"Seventeen seconds later, (the puck is) in the back of the net," Boyle said. "That's where it starts."

The Lightning's penalty kill has struggled mightily this season, allowing five goals in 12 opportunities in the first four games, a 55 percent success clip that was second worst in the league entering Wednesday. Though it has had some bad luck, as center Tyler Johnson says — such as a couple of shots deflecting in off sticks in front of the net — the most disturbing and determining factor has been how badly Tampa Bay has been dominated in the dot.

The Lightning is 4-for-21 on faceoffs on the penalty kill, with three of its opponents' power-play goals coming within 23 seconds of a lost draw in the defensive zone; another one came 69 seconds after a faceoff loss. With most of those faceoffs coming in the defensive zone, if you give a highly skilled power play the puck, you may never get it back.

"Definitely something we have to address," Johnson said.

Faceoffs have been a long-term problem for Tampa Bay, which ranked in the bottom half of the league the past two seasons. If the Lightning wants to win consistently against good teams, such as the Stars tonight at Amalie Arena, it will have to improve on draws, especially in the defensive zone on the penalty kill. The Stars ranked sixth in faceoffs (53.2 percent), with center Jason Spezza at 65.3.

"It's been a concern for two years," coach Jon Cooper said. "We have to get better at it. It's a mind-set going in. Sometimes we treat it like it's street hockey — the puck drops and 'It's in play now.' It's not, 'Let's get possession because the more we have it, the less the other team has it.' We've got to get a little bit more of that mind-set."

It's not like the Lightning hasn't worked on faceoffs. After most every practice, it has a fun competition, with the centers, who typically take faceoffs, competing one on one, with the winner moving on.

For a team built on speed, skill and puck possession, being under 50 percent on faceoffs the past few seasons — the Lightning was at 48.3 percent this season, 21st in the league entering Wednesday — holds the Lightning back while also hurting its special teams. The Blues were the league's best at faceoffs at 58.3 percent.

It's more challenging now with the new rules say a defensive player must place his stick on the ice first in all faceoffs not held at the center-ice dot. That gives a slight advantage to the attacking player, who can put his stick down second, allowing him to get a better feel for the timing of the faceoff and see how his opponent is setting up. Previously, the visiting team put its stick down first in all zones.

The Lightning is just 28-for-67 (41 percent) in defensive zone faceoffs. Boyle and Johnson said the new rule is no excuse.

"We need to bear down and maybe stop thinking so much, just find a way to win it," Boyle said. "It's not for a lack of effort, I know that. Just have to find a way to win it."

Boyle, who has won just 43 percent of his faceoffs, said a key is having multiple faceoff moves, "more clubs in your bag," and evolve so you're not predictable. Faceoffs are an inexact science, requiring a mix of strength, quickness and timing, but it also helps to study. Johnson said he watches film of opposing centers to pick up their techniques. Boyle said it also helps to know the linesmen, from how quick and strict they are in faceoffs, to which hand they use to drop the puck.

"We have to be better," Johnson said.

It's unfair to rest the blame entirely on the centers. Valtteri Filppula (55.8 percent) and Steven Stamkos (52.3) are on pace for career-best success rates. But faceoff wins are often a group effort, centers taking the draw and the two wings pinching in to fight for possession for 50-50 pucks. On the Red Wings' empty-net goal in Tuesday's loss, Stamkos appeared to win the faceoff, but Red Wings forward Drew Miller beat defenseman Victor Hedman to the puck. Miller dropped a pass back to Kyle Quincey, who flipped the puck the length of the ice into the Lightning net.

From the dot to done.